“Grinder’s Switch United Methodist Church”


Here are my thoughts for the ‘Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, October 6, 2019 (17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C). This is also World Communion Sunday.

Yes, I know that Grinder’s Switch*, like it’s northern counterpart, Lake Wobegon, is simply the product of the fertile imagination of its most famous inhabitant.  But just as I have found towns that could replicate the life of Lake Wobegon, I have also found towns that could replicate Grinder’s Switch.  The main difference is that while there are only two churches in Lake Wobegon, there are probably several churches in Grinder’s Switch.  The United Methodist Church has been a part of Grinder’s Switch since the first settlers came through the Cumberland Gap and settled into the rich heartland of Tennessee.

It is a church that has survived its share of war (there is a rumor that several Union soldiers are buried in the church’s cemetery) and hard times.  For a while, the church relied on lay speakers and the monthly circuit rider but they now have a regular pastor, Pastor Lucy.  Oh sure, there were some who don’t like that their pastor is a woman but they do admit she does know the Bible and when she preaches the Gospel, you can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Society’s lines were always clearly drawn in Grinder’s Switch but, while some still try to draw them, they have faded.  Even when the lines were almost walls, the people of Grinder’s Switch knew who needed help and how to get it to them.

There is always a sense of welcome at the GSUMC.  That’s not to say all is perfect but the people know that the future is theirs to behold.

And while Pastor Lucy will never share  the pulpit with her counterpart in the local Southern Baptist church, she and the other pastors are putting together a community Thanksgiving service and potluck dinner.  And the choir at Grinder’s Switch UMC has even challenged the choir of the local Pentecostal church to a Gospel sing-off.

There is a peace in Grinder’s Switch, not the peace that blocks out the distractions of the world but the peace that comes when one builds  God’s Kingdom in this time and in one’s own little corner of God’s world.

 As just as the lay leader at the Grinder’s  Switch is likely to  use “How – dee!” as part of the call to the worship, so too does the invitation that “you all come!” come from the heart and the soul.

~~Tony Mitchell


“Grinder’s Switch is just outside Nashville, TN, and is the fictional home of Minnie Pearl of the Grand Ole Opry.  If I am not mistaken, this is how Garrison Keillor got the idea for Lake Wobegon.”  ~~ Tony

“Who is your God today?”


This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church for this coming Sunday, September 16, 2018 (17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B)

To be honest, writing this back page was a bit of a struggle.  How does one answer the question when someone asks you, “who is your God?”

There are many who say that their God is the one true God, but their actions tell us that they worship other gods first.

The noted theologian Henri Nouwen stated,  “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity.”

Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah and not another individual seeking political and earthly power.  It just took him a bit longer to understand what all that meant but, in the end, he would come to understand what he had been called to do.

It takes every bit of our knowledge and experience, our wisdom, to hear the soft words of Jesus amidst the harsh and false words of the world and this society we live in.

But, in Christ we find the truth and know, in the truest sense, that it will set us free.                    ~~Tony Mitchell

“Systems Or People?”


Meditation for 5 October 2014, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20; Philippians 3: 4 – 14; Matthew 21: 33 – 46

The other day I put up a post entitled “A World Wide Systems Failure.” In part because of this post, I took that post down. But here is part of what I said in that post.

Have you noticed how administrators and other individuals in power are explaining things in terms of ‘the system failed”? That prompts me to aks when did we get to the point where we relied on systems to solve our problems. Are humans no longer involved in the problem solving process?”

One of first major political novels that I remember reading was the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler entitled Fail Safe. It was made into a movie in 1964 and then a TV movie in 2000. the premise of the movie was that there had been a systems failure which allowed a squadron of Air Force nuclear bombers to attack targets in the Soviet Union. And while a total nuclear war was adverted, there were nuclear-based consequences.

Today, in addition to the system failures that dominate our every day news, we are looking at the possibility of many other such failures. A war which should never have started threatens to become a global war; the recent civil unrest has reminded us that societal divisions cannot be swept under the wrong.

And what’s worse, we seem to have lost our ability to solve problems, in part as a consequence of relying on systems rather than people. We talk about the capabilities of our smart phones without realizing that no phone is smarter than the person using it. We have forgotten that, no matter what the speed of the processor, no computer or calculator can solve a problem if the person who inputs the information doesn’t understand how to solve the problem. All a super fast computer or calculator can do is get the wrong answer quicker. (See Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”, How To Become a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”, and Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” for more thoughts on this idea.)

The fault, dear Brutus, lies with us. We have created the system and enhanced it. From the very day Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, the lawyers and other legal experts have been creating rules and laws on how to make those ten statements of life work.

Let’s forget for a moment those who would put carve the Ten Commandments into stone and post them in every court and classroom in the country; I think that falls under the “don’t make graven images” rule. Let’s forget those who apply “thou shall not kill” to one set of circumstances but will not speak out against the death penalty or seem to think that war is an acceptable alternative.

Let us look at the 613 laws written in the Old Testament that were created to make sure that we obey the primary ten. But the Ten Commandments were and are about our relationship with God and others. The other laws created a legalistic system where salvation was impossible unless you happen to be one of those who wrote the rules. For the way the rules and laws were written, obeying one set of laws would invariably cause one to violate another set.

God’s Kingdom is first and foremost about how we react with others. In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus points out that we have forgotten that point. And what is Paul telling the Philippians, “stay away from those who focus on appearance and adherence to the law, those who hold onto the system.” Paul points out very clearly that he himself was once such a person, more interested in preserving the system than the people. And Paul acknowledges that approach took him away from God.

I don’t know if John Wesley ever made such a statement but we do know that what he initially created was a legalistic, mechanistic system that almost destroyed the movement before it began. In fact, all that we got from that initial approach was our name, “Methodist”. It was only when Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed that the Methodist movement became successful.

Systems are the means by which problems are solved. People still remain the problem solvers. When we rely solely on systems to solve the problems, then nothing will get solved. When we look to the people to solve the problems, then things will change.

Jesus came at a time when the system made it impossible for people to find God. He went beyond the system to meet the people and show them God.

When John Wesley went beyond the mechanics and legalisms and welcomed the Holy Spirit into his heart, the Methodist movement became successful and world changing.

You have the opportunity to escape from a system designed to enslave and entrap you. Shall you stay with the system or rely on Christ? Shall you work for the people or for the system. What shall you do?

“A Reflection Of A Past Life; A Vision Of A Future Life”


This is the message that I presented at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen this morning, Saturday, September 14th. I am using the Scriptures for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) – Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; and Luke 15: 1 – 10 – but am focusing on Paul’s words to Timothy.

We served some 93 people this morning. My thanks to the 10 volunteers who helped serve the people and then clean up. Please contact me if you are interested in being a part of this ministry in some way.

I had a choir director a few years ago who was always encouraging us to sing with a little more feeling; so that it meant something to us. This was, to be sure, a departure from the way most of that particular choir had been raised in the Methodist Church. And that in itself was a little unusual because one of the things that early Methodists were known for was their singing.

But over the years that part of Methodism seems to have disappeared. I see this in both the traditional and modern hymns we sing and how we sing. There is no feeling to the song, just some words put forth with a musical accompaniment.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a piece about music or singing but rather about how one feels, whether it be in singing or in everyday tasks. It is about the life that we have and the life that we lead. How do others see us? Do they see us as individuals who struggle with life, very sad, often angry, and certainly not blessed? Or perhaps they see us as people who are able to love, in spite of their present status or troubles, patient in trials, rich in hope, strong in adversity. Can they bear witness to the knowledge that every day God is present in their lives and that He has provided for them as He does for the sparrows in the sky?

John Wesley called this holiness, the act of living a life that displays an active love of God and neighbor that penetrated every part of their life. Those passing by could see the fruit of this holiness.

Now, we need to understand that holiness is not an all or nothing thing. You may have some holiness but you need to continue working on it, otherwise you risk losing what you had. Now, you also have to understand that you cannot gain this holiness by doing good works. Lord knows, Wesley tried and he failed.

I think we know many people who think that they have this holiness, if not because they are doing good things, then because they walk around proclaiming how their lives are blessed, and by contrast, yours is not. That very attitude, which I saw growing up and which I still see today, almost drove me from the church.

That sort of attitude is very closed and not open to life and what we might encounter each day. And a closed life fails to recognize that we need to have an openness to the creativity of life to which God calls us.

But in our move to a truly open society we must be always ready for the surprises that will spring forth, both those that assist in the creative process and those which threaten to destroy the creative process.

We must be aware that there is more to life than just what happens each day. If we are not willing to look for that which is beyond the boundaries of our thought, we can find ourselves quite easily caught in the present, with no hope for the future.

We have to ask ourselves if there is some power that breaks through into our lives and frees us from those forces that would limit what we do and constantly threatens us with destruction?

When we hear of the life of John Wesley, we know that he had developed a method for living, a method for achieving the knowledge that salvation was his. But we also know that this method did not work because it lacked one singular item, the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It would not be until that moment that we have come to Aldersgate that John Wesley would know that one could not work at gaining that feeling; that it came with an open heart and acceptance of the knowledge that Christ was the truth, the way, and the life.

It was that singular sensation of his heart being strangely warmed that told him of the presence of the Holy Spirit and that gave him the ability to take the Methodist Revival to a higher and more successful plane.

I chose the reading from 1 Timothy for this morning because we have Paul telling Timothy that his life had changed because of Jesus. It does not matter what translation of the Bible one reads; Paul points out that his life was pretty worthless before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. And how many of us have a life like that, one full of invective, arrogance, hatred and ignorance? How can we ever expect anything good to come out of a life like that. And yet Paul says that because of God’s grace he was able to be saved.

In the passage that we read today, Paul is passing on to Timothy the mantle of leadership. And each one of us, whether we know it or not, whether we truly understand what lies before us, also receives that same mantle. Each one of us understands and knows in our heart the evil, the sin, and the violence that encompasses this world. And in accepting Christ as our Savior we are able to cast aside, as Paul did, that evil, that sin, that violence and rely on the merciful God who can bring good out of evil.

We are now in a position, as was Paul, to received forgiveness and then be in a position to pass it on to others.

When John Wesley began the Methodist movement, he did so by looking out to world. It was when he took Christ into his heart that his life began to change and the Methodist movement began to change the world.

My challenge to you today is look at where your life is at today. Perhaps you need to bring Christ into your life. Now is the time to do so, to say that I repent, I cast aside all that I once was and begin a new, with Christ in my life.

If you have accepted Christ in your life, then you need to seek ways that will enable your own holiness, your own love of God become more visible.

Without Christ, our lives will always be a reflection of our past; with Christ, we have a new vision for the future. Our challenge will always be to decide what we want to see.

I Don’t Like Rules!


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 October 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20; Philippians 3: 4 – 14; and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.

I will admit it – I don’t like rules. Now, I am not talking about rules that come about from life and life’s experiences. Things such as knowing that hot glass looks the same as cold glass or one should never stick your nose in something to see what it smells like (there is a technique that we teach in the lab to do that). We might call such rules common sense but they were taught to us somewhere along the way.

Of course, there are times when I wonder how we teach someone about those rules. It certainly doesn’t make sense to let a two- or three-year old touch a hot item and burn their fingers just so that they will know that hot things can hurt. And it does take some time to learn that the way you smell things doesn’t require inhaling it unless you take a whiff of something noxious and quickly learn that isn’t what you do.

We learn to play baseball, football, soccer and other games by knowing what the rules are. The rules tell us what we can and cannot do. But there are other rules that come about because someone said that is the way things are done and that is the way we are going to do it.

There appears to be a rule that dictates how worship is be done in a church, even though we have little knowledge of how worship was done in the beginning church. There appears to be a rule that states that individuals such as myself cannot profess to be a Christian and work as a chemist (this rule also appears to have a corollary that says scientists cannot be Christians or religious).

There appears to be a rule that says this planet is ours to do with it what we please. And when someone speaks of global warming and what it is doing to the climate, we are to cast aside such warnings as frivolous, if not meaningless. God did not give us this planet to do what we wanted; he made us stewards to take care of it.

The church, the very essence of the vineyard in today’s Gospel reading, is not our church but God’s. And yet we act as the workers who ignored, stoned and killed the servants of the vineyard’s owner. And the warning that Jesus gave to the Pharisees and the scribes is a warning that should be heeded by many leaders in today’s churches, no matter the denomination. They may not have killed Jesus but they have cast him out of the vineyard and decided that the church is theirs to do as they please.

I now that at some time in the past I had memorized the Ten Commandments; it is part and parcel of the confirmation process. And I think that when one starts learning about faith and religion, it is important to do so. But somewhere along the line in one’s development, it becomes important to understand that these are not rules, carved in stone, to be rigidly obeyed. They are commandments, to be lived and honored, to be a part of one’s life.

Keep in mind that in the coming chapters of the Old Testament, there are going to be many, many more rules. All of these new rules are going to be an understanding of what the Ten Commandments mean; by in another sense, they are going to be loopholes through which people can crawl so that they can say they have upheld the commandments of God while finding a way to play golf on Sunday, or find no contradiction between against abortion but for the death penalty. It is perfectly alright to say that we don’t covet our neighbor’s things because we are so busy getting things for ourselves.

Paul, writing to the Philippians, warns us those who are more interested in appearances that carrying out the words of God. They are more interested in how one adheres to the rules than how the Spirit is a part of their life. Paul says, at least to me, it is what you do with what you know that counts. Just being able to check things off and say that I have done this and I have done that so therefore I am eligible this much of God’s grace is not the way things are done. Paul recognizes that his life as Saul was trapped in the maze of rules and rule enforcement; as Paul, he knows that such a life was a prison.

Even our own John Wesley understood this. Like Paul, Wesley would probably admit that he didn’t have it altogether, especially in those months and years before Aldersgate. His life was a life of checklists and things to do, things done in the hopes of achieving grace. It wasn’t until the presence of the Holy Spirit came into Wesley’s life did it become clear how God’s grace was achieved.

There is one rule that we must follow. It is that we must repent of our previous live and open our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ. Repentance means to begin anew, to seek a new life.

Yes, I don’t like rules especially those written by others. But the words, given to the people by God, are not rules; they are a way of life. The words Jesus spoke when he began his ministry were not rules but the fulfillment of the rules and the words. They were an acknowledgement that one must repent of one’s old ways, of one’s adherence to strict and confining rules, and to begin a new life in and with the Spirit. You cannot lead a new life through strict adherence to the rule. Maybe that’s why I don’t like rules. But, in my own personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Savior, I have a new life and a new outcome.

The choice today, my friend, is the same that it has been every day for some two thousand years or so. Live within the rules and be trapped or let the presence of Jesus Christ enter into your live and set you free.

The Plan


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 September 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1; 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7; and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

———————————————————————————————

My apologies for not posting this on Sunday – things are in flux right now.

———————————————————————————————

As I have written before, when I look at the three basic scriptures in the Lectionary, I try to formulate a title that expresses my thoughts about the scriptures. In other words, I formulate a plan that will guide me in my thoughts and thinking as I write the message, sermon and/or blog for the week.

That’s the basis for the title this week. I see in the scriptures some thoughts about having a plan; unfortunately, as I reviewed the information that would be the basis for my plan, I discovered some flaws that have caused me to think about what I wanted to write. Still, the basis for my ideas is still true and it is worth putting down those ideas.

I recall back in 1968 the talk about Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Viet Nam War. As I discovered in research, he really never had such a plan but he also wasn’t going to be very open about how he was going to resolve that little conflict in Asia. It was important for me back then to understand what the President of the United States had planned because certain aspects of my life, namely the draft, dictated that I would be an instrument in the implementation of that plan. And it wasn’t something that I was too crazy about.

First, the idea of the draft was an abhorrent one to me. It also struck me that I had absolutely no say in the matter, whatsoever. I wasn’t twenty-one so I couldn’t vote back then and there was a certain degree of unfairness to the idea that I could be chosen to go over to a land far, far away and be engaged in a conflict that might cost me my life and I would have absolutely no say in the matter. Now, as I have written before, I had and have no problem with military service. I am the son and grandson of military officers and, all things being equal, I would have probably joined the Air Force when I graduated from college. But I wanted that to be my choice, free and clear; not one determined by other factors that I had no say in.

It strikes me that some of the voices we hear today echo that same sentiment; that decisions are being made by authoritarian figures of all types that affect each person’s life and that the person has no say in the matter. Sometimes those authoritarian figures are one’s parents and, as a child, there is a certain understanding that you will do what your parents want you to do. But as the child gets older and begins to see the world through their own eyes, their input and their responsibility (nasty little word, that one, but it had to be included) increases as well.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. People today want the input but not the responsibility. They may not like paying taxes but taxes are part of the responsibility one pays for being a citizen and what grant them the right and privileges of citizenship. The other responsibility of a citizen is to be involved in the political process (that’s sometimes known as voting). If you do not participate in the political process, you really don’t have any means by which to complain. By the same token, those who are elected have a duty to respond and listen to all those to whom they are responsible. And I am one of many these days who sees the majority of politicians beholden only to those who contribute to their campaign and to the lobbyists who “sweeten the pot” in many ways.

The same is true with regards to the church. There are too many people in too many churches who want what the church has to offer but have no desire to commit their time, their talents, their presence, or their service. They are willing to be there for baptisms, weddings, and funerals but they will not help with Sunday School or financial support and if there is a time conflict between church and society, society generally gets the nod.

Many in the church today are alarmed by this shift in priorities. But why should they be? After all, we have softened the message to the point of it being almost watered down. Or we have hardened the message but made sure that it wasn’t applicable to all people, only the ones the congregation don’t want in their church.

The young in society today see a church that preaches one word but lives another; sometimes the wise are young and they have chosen not to come to church. You hear the cries of the elders that there are no youth in their church but why should there be? The elders by their own actions have driven the youth away, either by refusing to listen to the youth or making a mockery of the words said on Sunday morning.

It is no wonder that the words of Jeremiah resonated for today. The church has deserted God and the people have found other gods. And while there are those who would rejoice in the words of Paul to Timothy to pray for the government that would yield a simple life, they want a government that would reflect the times and attitudes before Christ. They would rather pray for the damnation of others than pray that we find a solution to hunger, homelessness, illnesses, and violence.

The solution is not an easy one. If you read the Gospel message for today as translated in The Message, you read Jesus saying,

If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things.

If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.

If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?

No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second.

Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank. (Luke 16: 10 -13)

You can’t have it both ways. You cannot put God off until the last minute and think that will work. It will but the problem is that you can’t know when that last minute is. It might come tomorrow and you will not be prepared for it.

If you lead your life with the presumption that there is this last-minute reprieve, you will be mistaken. On the other hand, if you live your life with the full knowledge of Christ and what Christ did and what that means for you, you have the beginnings of a plan.

It is a plan that says that I will follow Christ in my heart, in my mind, and in my life. It is a plan that says that all those I meet in a given day will know that there is a God and that He loves us. They will know because they will see it; you will know because you will feel it in your heart.

It is not an easy plan, to say the least. But it offers far more than any easy plan can.

———————————————————————————————

Do You Hear The Lord?


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3, 6 – 15; 1 Timothy 6 – 19; and Luke 16: 19 – 31.

———————————————————————————————-

The modern Christmas carol, "Do You Hear What I Hear", seems highly appropriate for these days and in this age. There are three parts to the carol. The night wind says to the lamb, "do you see what I see?" The lamb says to the shepherd boy, "do you hear what I hear?" And the shepherd boy asks the king if he knows of the child shivering in the cold? I think this is appropriate for this day and time because we often hear the cries of the needy, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed. Unfortunately, as a nation and as a society, we do not seem to be listening.

It seems that we would rather hear preachers preach a softer Gospel, offering us the rewards and joys of heaven but without the requirements and the edge that was often a part of Jesus’ message. When people come to church today, they hope to escape from the problems of the world. They do not want the problems of the world to interfere with the quiet they hope to find in church. The people want a Gospel message that does not require the rich young ruler to give up everything. They want a Gospel message that says it is okay to pray out loud in public but not mean what you pray for. They do not want to be called to task by God or reminded that the cross is the one true symbol of suffering and shame. And preachers oblige them, finding reasons to place the blame for the problems of society on others.

The problem that I have is that we are more apt to blame others than seek solutions. And when someone seeks a solution to the problems that face us, they are often apt to be criticized for anything that they do. We are fast becoming a society where laying blame is more important than taking action. We are fast becoming a society in which the Gospel message of love and peace is being replaced by a message of hatred and indifference, intolerance and violence.

But in an age when human life has been devalued through numerous wars, the instrumental use of the unborn for political purposes, the exploitation of the poor, and an arrogant use of power, it is surprising that churches are fostering this change and not leading the fight against it. As Methodists, steeped in Wesleyan tradition, we should be responding to this repudiation of human dignity. We should be drawing on John Wesley’s doctrine of God; in particular his understanding of the Trinity, as well as on his anthropology which specifically affirms that human beings are ever created in the image of God.

I fear that mankind, with many church leaders leading the way, are trying to make God in the image of man rather than working to make man the true image of God. It seems to me that we, as mankind, have forgotten when the people of Babylon attempted to build the Tower of Babylon and reach beyond their grasp. We should be crying out, loud and strong, about the abuse of power that is emerging from an autonomous and usurping conception of humanity. (From "A Reconfiguration of Power: The Basic Trajectory in John Wesley’s Practical Theology" by Kenneth J. Collins; edited by Michael Mattel for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Copyright 2003 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.)

It is clear that John Wesley hear the cries of the needy, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. When the storm that was the Industrial Revolution howled through the winter of England’s soul in the 18th century, it blew humanity into the cities like maple leaves before a November wind. And it left them, like leaves, piled in random heaps. Housing conditions were outrageous. Ten persons per unfinished room were common. Horse manure polluted the unpaved streets, sometimes piled 14 feet high on both sides of the street in London. Diseases like typhoid, smallpox, dysentery, and cholera ravaged almost unchecked. Starvation was a daily reality that stalked the poorest. In England’s larger cities, graveyard operators maintained "poor holes"; large common graves left open until the daily flow of corpses of nameless nobodies filled them.

Violent crime was common. Gambling and drinking were almost the national pastime. Every sixth building in London was an alehouse. For the children, there were the streets or the sweatshops; only one child in twenty-five attended school of any kind.

We know the story of John Wesley as the hero who came out of college and lifted the nation culturally, economically, and spiritually. We know that were it not for the Methodist revival led by John Wesley, England in the 18th century would have undergone the violent revolution that would sweep over France during the same period. But are these true stories? Were things really that bad? Or perhaps was there an attempt to "color" the stories and make Wesley seem larger than life? We know that were this to happen today, this would be the case.

In studying newspapers and other non-Wesleyan or non-Methodist sources of the 18th century, Wesley D. Tracey attempted to verify the accounts of those days. What he discovered was that most Wesleyan sources understated what happened. It seems that the social conditions judicial oppression of the times were worse than Wesley wrote in his diary. It was clear that Wesley’s theology and practice developed because of society’s indifference to the marginal members of society. (From "Economic Policies and Judicial Oppression As Formative Influences on the Theology of John Wesley" by Wesley D. Tracy; edited by Michael Mattel for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Copyright 2000 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.)

But those who heard Wesley’s exhortations to make the Gospel meaningful for all did not choose to respond in kind. First, church authorities barred Wesley and his fellow ministers from preaching in the established churches. Then, when the Methodist Revival moved into meeting houses, the secular authorities, at the urging of church authorities, banned them from those places. This forced the early Methodist preachers into the fields and countryside where crowds would heckle, taunt, and physical disrupt the services. On more than one occasion, John Wesley was stoned while preaching the Gospel. He later claimed that the bruises he bore from the rocks that the crowds threw were badges of honor for preaching the Gospel message. We also need to remember that those who formed the early Methodist societies in this country, such as those who banded together to form this church, were barred from meeting in the churches of the time.

Do not be surprised by this treatment of our early pastors, it is not new. Between the verses from the Old Testament that we read today we find that the people of Jerusalem had thrown Jeremiah into jail. The people had grown tired of hearing that God had forgotten them; they were tired of hearing how they had failed to keep the covenant first established by Abraham and Moses. They were quite content to worship other gods, others gods that promised them good news, not bad. They looked for gods that made them feel good, not asked them to take on the troubles of the world. They had gotten tired of hearing Jeremiah’s pronouncements of doom. But instead of working to reestablish the covenant, instead of trying to be God’s people, instead of heeding Jeremiah’s prophecies, they threw Jeremiah in jail.

I wonder how well we have learned the lessons of the past. We seem bound and determined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Churches today still seem to believe that poverty was a condition of sin. If you were a sinner, it was because you lived in poverty and were devoid of God’s blessings. If you were rich, it was only because you lived a righteous life and God’s blessing rained down on you.

We are reminded through the Gospel message for today that God’s blessings do not come to us because of our social or economic status. There is no doubt that the rich man was a righteous man, a man who attended the synagogue and said his daily prayers. But there was also no doubt that he ignored Lazarus, the poor beggar who sat outside his door. It is probable that the rich man was not even aware that Lazarus even existed.

But when the rich man died and found himself condemned to the fires of Sheol, tormented by unimaginable pain, he became very much aware of Lazarus. In his vision, he saw Lazarus, after all the suffering he had endured on earth, being comforted by the angels of heaven. It must have really hurt the rich man to think that this could even have occurred. Why else would he, the rich man, ask Abraham to send a message to his brothers warning them of what might happen to them? But Abraham told him that the message had been sent and the brothers, just like the rich man, would not hear it.

What then shall we do? C. S. Lewis portrayed hell, not as a flaming inferno, but as a dark, shady, chilly, and above all boring place. Its proud citizens may actually depart whenever they so choose. But just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, "if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?" Because they always seem to insist on keeping something, even if it means remaining in misery. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things, either one says to God, "Thy will be done" or God will say, "Thy will be done." Those, to whom God speaks first end up like the rich man, caught in hell longing for a comforting drink of water.

The rich man’s hope was right outside his door. Lazarus was his neighbor, figuratively and literally. His own salvation was as close as the other side of the door yet the separation between the two was as wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches so now he cannot cross the massive chasm that was his own choosing.

Could the rich man have saved his soul by tossing a nugget of gold to Lazarus? What if every now and then he had told his servants to give a few leftovers to Lazarus? Would that have been sufficient for God to proclaim "well done, good and faithful servant!" Hardly; for the opposite of poverty is not property but rather community.

On this earth, we are called to live in community. It is a community of all, with no distinction between who you are or what you were. It cannot be a community in which what we have determines what will happen. Go back and read what Paul wrote Timothy. When you allow success to take over your life, you are apt to get into trouble. Here we read what is the most mis-quoted verse in the Bible. It is not money that is the root of all evil; rather, it is the love of money. Paul says to Timothy, understand where all you have came from and understand why you have what you have. Finally, make sure that is what the people see. Do not lead a life which will lead to dissension or distrust. Rather, lead a life that will inspire others and reflect on the presence of Christ in one’s life.

Finally, look not at where you are at now but where you will be. Jeremiah is in jail, imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that are to come. Yet, he buys some property; he invests in the future of Israel. Jeremiah trusts in God and knows that good things are about to happen. Paul encourages Timothy to not get hung up on the trappings of life but concentrate on what makes for good and godly life, for there one will find true peace and happiness.

In a few weeks, Jeremiah will announce a new covenant, a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. Jesus reminds us to listen carefully, that the words of the prophets are true. I would ask this day if we hear the words of the Lord just as clearly as the prophets said them?


To Build Our History


This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3, 6 – 15; 1 Timothy 6: 6 – 19; and Luke 16: 19 – 31.

———————————————————————————

I found the Old Testament reading for today interesting for two readings. First, Jeremiah bought the land in anticipation of the rebirth of the nation of Israel. In buying the land, Jeremiah put his faith into action and showed the people there was hope for the future, even when faced with imminent danger. We as a country are being asked to do much the same thing, move towards the future even as we recover from the devastating events of almost three weeks ago.

And second, the Old Testament reading reminded me of how this church got its own start. And as I studied some of the history of this church, especially the record of baptisms and marriages I got a sense that perhaps the past of my daughters may be tied to this church more than I might be. It seems that Elnora E. Eitel was married to Robert W. Marion in this church (or actually its predecessor) on December 10, 1878 by the Reverend J. S. Walker. And while this event may not have much meaning to you, there is the possibility that Elnora is somehow related to my daughters through their maternal grandfather, Manuel Eitel.

If we know our history, we have some sense of why we are here and what our future will be. In reading the informal history of Walker Valley we know that James Walker set aside some $300 for the purpose of erecting a house of worship in Walker Valley. He stipulated that the congregation would have to raise $!,000 in order to receive this bequeath. Sometime in 1854, the Rev. Edward Oldrin appointed a Board of Trustees consisting of Jacob Walker, James Kerr, James Lebody, Isaac R. Talmage and Matthew Wilkinson to oversee the task of raising the $1,000. It was reported that they circulated a subscription, which was met with a fine reception. As a result the money was raised.

The first structure was begun in 1854 and dedicated on January 8, 1855. The cost of the church was $1750. On July 18, 1907, lightening struck the church and it burned to the ground. Under the leadership of James M. Walker, grandson of James Walker, they started to rebuild. It appears from the history that I got these notes from much of the effort in building this present structure come from donations and personal effort. On May 30, 1908 this building was dedicated to the work of God.

The tradition of donating not only money but also time and energy was continued with the building of the education building. In 1964, the congregation of this church wanted to build what is now our educational wing. The Conference gave permission for the project but with the stipulation that the costs not exceed $8,000. The building committee for that project consisted of Andrew Baxter, John O’Connor, Leon Allen, Roy Upright, Gertrude Martyn, and Beulah and Gordon Frost, familiar names to many of you. The education wing was dedicated on July 9, 1967 with a service highlighted by the presence of the bishop of the conference. When Bishop Lyght comes here in December, it will be the first time since that service in 1967 that a Bishop of the New York Annual Conference has visited this area.

But our interest in the past should not cloud our concern for the future. It was for the future, both in 1854 and again in 1964, that this church was built. It was because there was a need for a place to worship God together that this church was built; it was because there was a need to educate the children of the congregation that the educational wing was built. So when we see these building from only the past, we fail to see where we will be in the future.

Jeremiah bought the land in Anathoth not as land speculation, knowing that it would be valuable after the Babylonians left but rather because he knew that there would be a future. When he bought that land, there was no bright hope in the future. To many that would have been enough to quit or give up.

But, in purchasing the land, Jeremiah quietly said that there was a future, there was a hope.

Paul, in writing to Timothy, pointed out we cannot take what material goods we have accumulated during our lives with us when we die. And we should be equally concerned that the only reason that we seek to accumulate material wealth is for our own purposes. Paul warned about loving money, as if in doing so, we would gain that which we did not have. It is not money that gives life to all things or serves as the foundation of our hope.

There is no sin in being rich but you must always be aware of where the money and the riches come from. What we have to understand is that money is a tool to be used in the service of God. That is what Paul meant when he wrote to Timothy to teach people to be "rich in good works, generous and ready to share." (Verse 18)

Jesus also reminds us that which we have here on earth cannot be taken with us into heaven or that what we have here is going to be of any assistance when we get there. While we might want to live a life like that of the rich, we have to stop and think if that is an adequate representation of who we are or what we want to be.

The challenge that we face today is do what do what we can that not only honors the traditions of this church but also insures that those traditions are carried forward. This church was built to insure that the word of God would be represented in this community; that people would be able to hear the Gospel message. And while it may not seem so, what we do here goes beyond the community.

If nothing else, the recent tragedy clearly shows that our world is not limited to a simple little country community, assuming that it ever was. So what we do in this little corner of Ulster County will have an impact on the world around us.

We seek a world of peace but peace doesn’t come simply because we hope for it or because we pray for it. Make no mistake, prayer helps but our actions make the prayers come alive. Paul wrote

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12: 19 – 21).

Jeremiah was sitting in a jail when God commanded him to buy that piece of land. The hope for the future came not from what Jeremiah said but rather from what he did.

Paul pointed out that our presence would be increased more by how we helped others than by what we had for ourselves. Jesus pointed out that we could not help others from the grave and that we must work in the now for the future.

As members of the United Methodist Church, we have pledged to serve through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. This coming week, the chairs and members of the Administrative Council will be getting notes about the upcoming Charge Conference. One of those notes speaks to the budget for the coming year.

We have never had a major stewardship drive and I have never really thought it was needed. But I am challenging each member of this church to think not only about what this church has meant to them but also to think about what this church can mean to others who have yet to come. I want you to pray carefully about what this church has done and what you can do to help this church do the same for others.

Our future is built on our past. Those who felt there was a need for the word of God to be heard here in Walker Valley built this church. Today you are being asked to build on that history and make sure that there is a future.


Riders Wanted


This was the message I presented at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore (KS) United Methodist Church for Laity Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 1995.  Grace Memorial was my home church at the time and it was a joint charge, so I gave the message at both services that morning.  I used Jeremiah 8: 18 – 19: 1 and Luke 16: 1 – 13 as the basis for the message.

—————————————————————————————

We are a nation about to enter a new century. But while this should be a time of great adventure and promise, it almost seems like we are afraid to enter into that new century. Now, it is only natural to look at the future with uncertainty because, while we can make estimates, we have no means of really knowing what is actually going to happen. But today, the fear of tomorrow seems greater than ever before. And I would hazard a guess that this fear arises from our own insecurity, our own inability to cope with the problems of today.

It is almost like we see the future in front of us but slipping away from our grasp. Our country is becoming divided by politics, economy, and location. Each region, each group of people cry that they are being shut out and ignored. I sense in the political rhetoric today that some groups want to turn the clock back, feeling that will return the better times.

Instead of boldly going into the new century, it is almost as if we are being dragged there, kicking and screaming, by the slow march of time. The future offers us a wonderful present but instead of anticipating the day we get to open this present, we actually fear what is inside the wrapping.

The prophet Jeremiah saw the future for his country and cried out because he knew there would be destruction. The passage read earlier speaks of the heartbreak Jeremiah felt on the destruction and exile of the Israelites from the Promised Land. Jeremiah was moved to mourning and tears because of the certain destruction of Jerusalem. What God had intended for the people of Israel, what God had willed for Jerusalem and the Temple — all of it was about to fall before Nebuchadnezzar’s swords and torches. Later on, the people of Israel would also cry because they knew the pain of exile and that it had been foretold but they had not listened.

The Israelites were beset on account of their sins. Whatever hope there was in the bright days of summer had ended; there was no hope of salvation, nothing to save them from their certain end. The Lord was not in Zion; the king was not in her. The people cried to God, but it was too late. There was no balm in Gilead, no salve equal to the wound; no doctor, even to heal what ailed them. The poor people suffered and no one could help. (Thomas R. Steagald, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, 1995 Edition, page 317 – 318)

In telling the tale of the dishonest foreman, Jesus made one simple point. When you seek rewards by less than your best effort or through unethical means, the rewards you receive reflect what you put in. The people listening to Jesus that day must have asked themselves "How could the foreman expect his "friends" to help him when he had cheated his boss? What person is going to hire this person, knowing he cheated his previous employer? The last line in the story made it very clear, when you serve someone other than God, your rewards are limited to the present time.

And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters’ for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 16: 10 – 13)

The same is true today. We clamor for things to be done right, we seek a return to a righteous status, we want what is right but we are not willing to pay the price. It seems like our solutions for today’s problems are like the foreman’s solutions in the Gospel reading today. Just like the foreman, we would rather cut our losses and hope that things come out for the better. Rather than trying to better our lives through our own actions and the use of our abilities, we seek to blame others for our difficulties.

We choose not to act like Solomon but like the other kings of Israel who sought power. Solomon, when faced with the immensity of tasks in front of him went to God and asked for wisdom.

Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, though I am a mere child, unskilled in leadership. Here I am in the midst of your people, the people of your choice, too many to be numbered or counted. Grant your servant, therefore, a heart with skill to listen, so that he may govern your people justly and distinguish good from evil. Otherwise who is equal to the task of governing this great people of yours?

The Lord was well pleased that this was what Solomon had asked for, and God said, "Because you have asked for this, and not for long life, or for wealth, or for the lives of your enemies, but have asked for discernment in administering justice, I grant your request; I give you a heart so wise and so understanding that there has been none like you before your time, nor will there be after you. What is more, I give you those things for which you did not ask, such wealth and glory as no king of your time can match. If you conform to my ways and observe my ordinances and commandments, as your father David did, I will also give you long life." (1 Kings 3: 7 – 14)

We know these words of Solomon and God’s reply to his request. But we have chosen not to listen but rather to take what seems the easy path. Our children have been told that they will never be successful unless they wear certain clothes. Television shows today sell an idea about success that is far from reality. We have come to the point where mediocrity is acceptable. Many political candidates, in an effort to get elected, use fear and intimidation as their primary means for getting votes. It seems that politicians prefer to blame the past rather than offer hopes for the future. And, in this environment, where critics cry about the moral decay of the country and blame the government and the media, let me point out that we have allowed this to occur.

There was another time in this nation’s past when the nation was split apart. But this split was more physical than spiritual. It too was a time of adventure. The west was opening up and the opportunities were countless. People saw the way west as a means to new hope and opportunities. The country had also grown faster than the technology of its time. There was no way for the people in the east to easily communicate with the people in California. There was a solution but it was one which required the utmost effort from all those involved, the Pony Express.

The Pony Express was created as a means of getting the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. It worked until it was replaced by a new technology, the telegraph. Potential riders of the Pony Express needed to be young, good horsemen, accustomed to outdoor life, able to endure severe hardship and fatigue, and fearless. The ideal age was set at twenty, but a number considerably younger actually were employed. Only those of good moral character, not addicted to drink, were eligible. Upon employment, each rider signed an oath of loyalty to the company and was given a Bible. (Saddles and Spurs – The Pony Express Saga, Raymond W. Settle and Mary Lund Settle, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1972, page 42)

There are voices crying out in the wilderness even today. We hear them every day. Jeremiah cried out in the wilderness for salvation. Jeremiah cried out for someone to heal the country. But he knew there was no one. Our country is split apart again. But the split in the country today is a spiritual one and riders are again needed.

Now, if you did not know better, you might have thought that what I just read was a description of Methodist circuit riders one hundred years earlier. Circuit riders, I believe, are unique to the history of this country and were the response by the churches in England to the cries of a people seeking the word of God.

From the Minutes of the Bristol Conference, 1771, we read

Our brethren in America call aloud for help. Who are willing to go over and help them?

Five were willing. The two appointed were Francis Asbury & Richard Wright.

We have been given the ultimate in gifts, the promise of everlasting life. We know that the future does offer hope. We know the promise God made to us is still true. Our life has been laid out in terms of what we must do. Paul wrote to Timothy of the great promise God holds for all humanity.

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human who gave himself a ransom for all. Our prayers during worship please God because He desires all humanity to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. In our acts of worshipful prayer, we truly become salt of the earth and light of the world. We become agents of God’s plan for reconciliation. (1 Timothy 2: 4)

It falls upon us, as it did Paul, to provide the leadership necessary for the coming times. We must at this time decide what we are going to do. Shall we seek to be the workers that God wants or shall we sit by and watch the world go its own way? The Gospel message today is very clear. Do we work to our ability, gaining the rewards that come or do we seek to just get by, hoping that in doing so, we will get enough to insure our survival?

We are not asked to be circuit riders; just workers for Christ. Today the song "There is a Balm in Gilead" is not the painful wail of Jeremiah but the cry of triumphant hope. In the verses of this hymn, we hear the answer to our prayers, what our role is to be. We do not have to preach like Peter, we do not have to pray like Paul; all we have to do is tell the love of Jesus and be witnesses to the fact that He died for us all. The advertisement may say "Riders Wanted" but the only qualifications for this position are that you hear Jesus calling you today and that you be willing to be a servant of the Lord.

For What Is The Truth?


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 September 2007.

——————————————————————————————————

I have edited this since it was first posted.

——————————————————————————————————

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he proclaims “I am telling the truth, I am not lying.” (1 Timothy 2: 7 ) He says this because he needed to say it; there were many times when opponents to Paul’s ministry would accuse him of saying something else or they would say that their words were the truth. One has to almost wonder what has changed in the two thousand or so years since Paul wrote those words. It seems to me that each day someone says something and proclaims it to be truth. It also seems to me that every time someone says that they are telling the truth they should add “as I know it.”

Now, I know that I spend a lot of time in my writings and in my sermons arguing against those ministers and churches who are proponents of the prosperity and the “word-faith” gospels. I also spend a lot of time pointing out, or trying to point out, the fallacies of fundamental Christians. And I have lately spent a lot of time pointing out that those who argue for a scientific-based approach to belief are also wrong. Or at least I think they are wrong.

Now the truth is that most churches, congregations, and ministers support the Gospel message as Christ first gave it to us some two thousand years ago. And most churches, congregations, and ministers are neither on the left or right side of the theological spectrum. And most scientists, no matter what field they are in, do believe in God. It is just that when you look at the world around us, all you see are ministers promising wealth beyond your wildest dreams or proclaiming the pending destruction of the world because of the sins of the world. And the only scientists that you hear offer faulty reasons for turning against religion.

If I may be so bold and quote Shakespeare, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” (“Julius Caesar”) The reason that so many people can get away with faulty reasoning in today’s society is that we, the people, allow it to occur. We allow people to speak falsehoods, misunderstandings, or outright lies because we either agree with their thinking or we are not willing to take the time to determine the validity of their arguments.

We think that “God helps those who help themselves” is somewhere in the Bible so we allow ministers to preach the false gospel of prosperity. We can’t find it in the Bible because it isn’t in the Bible; it was first phrased by Benjamin Franklin. We don’t argue with those who say it is Biblical because their thoughts often match our own.

And though we might be amazed by the growth of these ministries and the amount of wealth they bring to the practitioners, we should not be surprised. People will buy the trinkets these charlatans offer because they are the only ones offering hope. Yes, it is a false hope but it is the only hope that many people see today.

We live in a culture that emphasizes personal wealth and material prosperity. We seek to put our luxuries before other people’s necessities. Remember that Job has endured almost every possible calamity that we could imagine. He lost his property, he lost his children, he lost his wife and he lost his health. All of his friends proclaimed with the certainty of true believers that these calamities were the cause of Job’s sin; their responses were the responses of the present world.

We have accepted the notion that equates poverty with sinfulness because we agree with that idea. And when ministers offer words of hatred and exclusion or proclaim that the ills of society are either indicative of society’s faults or caused by others, we willingly accept this judgment. We are neither Bible scholars nor noted theologians, so we accept the words of so-called experts. These modern day Biblical experts are also rewriting history so as to justify their view of the world. Why are more people not crying out and questioning this blatant manipulation of our country’s history?

Is it because these “experts” say we are not to question them. When we are told not to question the words of the Bible, we agree. In the minds of these “experts”, to question the Bible is to question God. But to be told that we cannot question takes away our capability to think. Consider the words in Matthew 18: 15 – 17.

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

In all of Jesus’ parables, he challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. This passage goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005)

If you stop and think about it, these cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem. If that fails, then they were to be expelled from the church.

Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree? There are those who feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.

What it means is that we have to be able to critically think and analyze what we have read, not simply blindly accept what is before us. To accept something without considering it is simply blind faith and you cannot see where you are going if you are blind.

Each day that I hear the hateful and exclusive words of the fundamentalists or the words of the “get rich quick through Jesus” ministers, I become more and more convinced that I am hearing the words of Satan. Their words are not the words of the Bible nor are they anywhere close to the ideas that Jesus preached throughout Galilee. And when you challenge these charlatans and false prophets, you are rebuked and told that you are a fool or do not know what you speak. Yes, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the political leaders, for their words were the false words. Would not Satan cloak his words in words that we think are Biblical so as to hide his true intentions?

And this notion goes beyond the words offered on countless cable channels at all times of the day and in many pulpits on Sunday. It is a notion that transcends each day in our news and our politics. Our politics have become the politics of fear rather than the politics of hope. Our news is tempered by the notion that the truth is only told by a select few who have complete understanding of the world while we, the people, do not. We have willingly sent young men and women to fight in a war that was based on a series of lies. And every time a lie about this war has been exposed, our patriotism and our devotion to this country are questioned.

When I was a college student, the most frequent cry of support for the Viet Nam war was “my country, right or wrong.” But like so many statements uttered by both sides in the civil conflict that accompanied the real war, this was an incomplete statement.

The phrase itself is attributed to Stephen Decatur who actually said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” He gave it as a toast during a dinner in 1816. ( ) This quotation was later modified by Carl Schurz, a senator from Missouri, in remarks he made on the Senate floor on February 29, 1872. His actually words were “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Senator Schurz would later say, ““I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’” (http://www.bartleby.com/73/1641.html ) For Senator Schurz and many others, patriotism requires vigilance and an understanding of what this country is doing. To blindly accept the directions the leaders of this country wish to take us is neither patriotic nor wise.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped emphasizing critical thinking and the ability to decide for one’s self. It wasn’t done deliberately but is simply a reflection of our society. From generation to generation, the previous generation worked hard to insure the next generation would have a better life. But each generation is often faced with problems the previous generation never had to face and the work, instead of getting easier, gets harder. We have unconsciously lessened the intensity of our efforts. And the results can be seen in the quality of the country’s leadership and in the quality of the media we use to transmit information.

And it is not just the news media. When you compare the quality of production for television over the past forty years or so, it appears to me that it is declining. Yes, there was some pretty silly stuff produced when television first came out and there is quality material produced today. But it seems to me that the quality of entertainment on television today lessens with each passing day.

If we would only stop for a few moments and think about what some of the so-called experts are saying, then we would be crying “the emperor has no clothes!!” We seek the simplest possible answers and when faced with challenges, our reactions are made out fear. We do not critically question the information that is given to us because we do not know or we do not want to know what the truth is. And many are too lazy to question or too willing to let others tell them what to believe and do.

It used to be that people would send me e-mails about a new virus or some instance that requires my attention. Now, viruses are the bane of computers. They are nasty pieces of programming that take advantage of some obscure weakness in a computer system and are designed, intentionally or otherwise, to wreak havoc on the recipient’s computer. I have often said, with my tongue firmly planted in my check, that if I wanted to wreck a network, I would send a warning about a virus. Because recipients of this warning would quickly send out messages to their friends, who would send out messages to their friends, and they would do likewise, until the message networks were filled with messages about a hoax.

Any time you receive such a warning, you should be skeptical and verify them before you forward them. There are a number of places on the Web where you can find out what is happening. And, when I get such a warning from someone, I mail the address of one of those sites to the people who have forwarded the e-mail to me; it tends to cure the “virus” spreading.

Now, this is not to say that you cannot get a virus through the e-mail but generally speaking, the virus will be an attachment to the message, not the message itself as many warnings imply. When in doubt, never open an e-mail with an attachment from an address you do not know and be wary of attachments whose file name ends in ".vbs" or ".exe". And always make sure that your anti-virus software is current.

I mention this because it fits within our need to have a convenient conspiracy theory. For some reason that no one has been able to explain, the world loves a good conspiracy and the Internet has given rise to various conspiracy theories. Every incident that gathers worldwide attention today will quickly be followed by rumors on the Internet as to its real cause or how it really is something else.

It is our responsibility to determine when something we are told is true or when it is a hoax. The rules that apply to determine the validity of an e-mail warning about a virus apply just as well to determining the validity of a conspiracy theory. The same can be said about religion and Christianity today.

Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio and host of the website RealLivePreacher.com writes:

I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that." So Atkinson responds: "Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swinging’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration — plays, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos.

That’s what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search:

  • You won’t find that church.
  • Surely, I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
  • Let’s talk about my first point again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. (Printed in the February issue of Context (originally from Christian Century, 11/16/2004 – see http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=752)

The people looking for a church must change their way of thinking. Somewhere along the line, we must accept that the present state of our society is our fault and that we are the ones who must fix the problem.

It was very difficult to read today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 1 – 13 ) because of its apparent support for dishonesty. The owner of the property tells the property manager that his job is in danger. The manager then settles outstanding accounts for less than the total amount in order to be in good standing with the account holders. This will allow the manager to get good references in case he is actually fired by his current boss. Yet, the owner/boss commends the manager for actions which worked against the best interest of the owner.

But this commendation is conditional. It only works with those for whom such actions are normal. In other words, if your business practices are unethical then the only ones who will appreciate you are those whose business practices are also unethical. Those whose practices are ethical will have nothing to do with you. As Jesus points out, if you have not been faithful with what belonged to someone else, who will give you what is your own? (Luke 16: 12 )

And if anything, we have not been faithful to God. We were created in His image yet we have wasted our talents, our time, our thoughts, and our service. We willingly destroy this world through environmental neglect and war. We turn people against people in God’s name; we use fear, hatred, and ignorance as words of the church. We deny others the right to believe in God in their own way because it is not the way we believe in God. We have driven how many people away because they are not the right race, the right economic state, or lifestyle. It is no wonder that, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, God weeps for His people. (Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1) Look at what we have done with God’s creation and wonder why we are not crying.

The truth is that we have been a great opportunity and we have thrown it away. We have transposed words of hope and joy into hatred and greed. We have left a path that moves us forward for one that leads us backwards. We have closed our eyes and let others lead us to destruction.

God’s Son was given to us and we wasted the gift. And, what is worse is that we did not understand the value and the timelessness of this gift. We do not understand that God’s grace is there if we would simply repent and change our ways. Jesus told us to seek the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8: 32) The truth is found in Christ and we must be the ones who seek it. We are given a great opportunity this day. Let us not give it away again in our ignorance.