“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 -  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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There are two questions that I wish you would consider this morning. First, why are you a United Methodist? Second, why are you here this morning?

The fact that you are here this morning suggests that you would say to someone that you are a United Methodist and, just as that someone might ask, so too do I ask, "Why are you a United Methodist?"

I would hope that you say that you are a United Methodist because you respect diversity in theology. You feel that as long as the differences in belief between you and others are rooted in the essentials of Christian faith, then those differences enhance one’s understanding of God and challenge you to grow in faith. I would hope that you would say that you rely on God’s grace for salvation – grace that brings you to faith, grace that forgives your sin and renews us, grace that continues to nurture you and draw you on toward perfect love.

You know that one’s conversion and new birth in Christ, whether sudden or gradual occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And finally, you believe that faith in Christ is expressed in outward works of love – that personal salvation leads to a mission of evangelical witness, caring service, and social action for human liberation, reconciliation, justice, and peace.

As a United Methodist, you understand that God calls one to clarify and communicate one’s faith – to put beliefs into words – for us and for others. We do this by using four different sources, scripture, church tradition, Christian experience, and reason. Each of these sources, while making distinctive contributions, work together to guide our quest as United Methodists for a vital and appropriate Christian witness. (Adapted from "Distinctive Emphasis of United Methodists" in The United Methodist Way by Branson L. Thurston)

But I also know that many people attend church for primarily non-theological reasons. Hopefully, when someone decides to become a member of a particular church, it is because they were a member of a similar church somewhere else and they wish to hold to the ideas they have heard before. But, for many, they attend a particular church because it is the closest church to where they live. Or they attend a church because it was the church where their parents and perhaps their grandparents attended.

Now, there is nothing wrong with either of those reasons. They are probably the main reasons why someone goes to a particular church. In fact, theological reasons for attending a particular church probably rank lower on any given list of reasons. I would not be surprised if childcare and parking rank higher and are more important in the reasons for going to church.

But, in a world where people are searching for meaning in their lives, most mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church hold to the church building models that are based on 19th century assumptions.

Churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries prospered because the children raised in the church stayed with that particular church. But as our society has changed, children have moved away from the places they were raised. They no longer attend the church of their childhood and are just as likely not to attend church at all. So the basic assumption that many churches have used for growth has failed, because there is no internal growth in the church.

I am not sure if convenience is a viable model either. But that is today’s model. Churches today are encouraged to offer programs for everyone. When a visitor comes, the greeters are to find out what the visitor is interested in and direct them to a group with the same interests. Coming home the other night, I saw a poster for one of the major old-line denomination churches in New York City. I counted at least fifteen different program areas offered by the church. There was something for everyone; there were five different choirs, ranging from traditional church music to Gospel music; there was a gay and lesbian support group; there was a mother’s group with childcare; there was a major Bible study, with the church’s in-house Biblical expert. Each program offered each group something. Yet, as I read the brief descriptions, I wondered if I wasn’t just reading descriptions for social groups. Yes, there were references to growth in faith but it seemed like socialization was more important.

And with all this information occupying the major part of the poster, it took some doing to find out if this church even offered Sunday morning worship. It was there but in an inconvenient and visually inaccessible part of the poster. In fact, the church’s three radio shows got more attention than did the worship service.

The problem is that when convenience takes precedence over worship, the church risks transforming itself into nothing more than a rather ornate 7-11 store, open at all times and for the convenience of the customer.

I am not opposed to having groups in church; the church has and always been an important place for the community to come together. But I wonder if the emphasis on the groups of a church hides the real reason for why churches exist.

Have we forgotten that the reason that we are here this morning is because we are supposed to be here? Have we forgotten that we are here to worship God and to thank Him for what He has done for us? Do we not remember that our presence here today completes the covenant established between God and His people on the Mount when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments?

We are here today because it is an expression of our faith. Perhaps, like Timothy, it is the faith in which we were raised. That is how Paul sees it, the family connection that only then can be said to "live in you." Yet, faith is never a mere family hand-me-down but a "gift of God that is within you" and "a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us." Faith is an incarnate reality that, while a gift from God, is one that comes embodied in our human, including family, relationships.

There are no easy analogies to explain how one comes to faith. But we must know that faith is always God’s gift and never a human accomplishment. Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside our efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to the One we have found trustworthy. As United Methodists, we find that it is through the Scripture, tradition, experience and reason that we are able to gain faith and find our faith growing.

The Gospel for today addresses another issue regarding faith that is still very much with us. Are the degree and depth of our faith adequate for life’s circumstances? The concern here is voiced by Jesus’ own followers whom He sternly commanded to beware of causing little ones to stumble, but also to be generous in extending forgiveness even to chronic sinners who continue to repent. For once, "the apostles," as Luke calls them, seem to have grasped the difficulty of what Jesus is teaching and plead with Him, "Increase our faith!" Jesus replies rather obliquely,"If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." Apparently faith isn’t about capacity; it is an orientation. Faith is beyond measurement. You’ve got it or you don’t, Jesus goes on to suggest. Having it is like being the slave who simply does what is commanded, who knows his or her place and does what needs doing.

Archbishop William Temple once remarked, "It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly concerned with our being religious." Jesus would probably agree, since He pricked the balloon of his followers’ own religious pretensions about faith. Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. It is more the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willingness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all of life’s questions and circumstances that one is nothing more than God’s own. (Adapted from "Measure of Faith" by John Rollefson, Christian Century, September 21, 2004)

We did not read from the Book of Jeremiah this week but we did read Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah is credited with writing the Book of Lamentations and the words of this somber book are Jeremiah’s cries at the destruction of his country. But Jeremiah does not cry because Israel has been defeated militarily but rather because the people of Israel have lost their faith in God.

When the people of Israel trusted in God, when the people of Israel put their faith in the covenant with God, they prospered, succeeded and survived. But when they ignored the covenant, when they put their faith in other gods or other means, they failed, were conquered and enslaved.

We are faced with hard questions and hard choices this day. We cannot ask for or demand an increase in our faith; to do so would be folly. But we can and should look at what we are doing and ask if these actions that we take, the words that we speak are true and outward expressions of our faith.

Paul’s words to Timothy were simply to keep the faith, hold on to the values that define his faith. Paul’s words were encouragement to Timothy in a time of dismay. Paul knew that his time was at an end and it was time for Timothy to take the lead. Rather than lament the loss of Paul as a leader, it was up to Timothy to lead by the faith that had brought him to this point in time and would lead the church into tomorrow.

Paul knew that if the churches that he had worked so hard to establish were to continue, they could not hold on to the ways or thoughts of the past. The same is true today; churches that hold on to the past will find it difficult to move into tomorrow. Those that cater to the needs of today will also find it hard to be there tomorrow, for what they offer is for today only.

But those churches, no matter how old the building or the people, no matter if it is an established traditional denomination or a new upstart denomination, who hold on to the faith that brought them to this time will find themselves as good as yesterday. And those churches that hold on to the faith of yesterday and live today in way that fosters and encourages the growth of that faith will find their doors open tomorrow.


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Meeting the Challenge


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 7 October 21.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 –  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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The three readings for today all deal with faith. Paul writes to Timothy as an older colleague encouraging a younger one experiencing difficulty. In the Gospel reading the disciples are crying out for help because they feel that the demands being placed on them exceed what they feel they can do.

And at a time when hope seems lost, when it appears that God has left us behind, the reading from Lamentations speaks to us of God’s presence in our daily lives. I have to agree with the commentaries that said it is very difficult to preach from Lamentations.

The name is certainly appropriate. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, this plaintive outcry reveals the prophet’s broken heart. Lamentations was written at a time when Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s grief comes from not from the loss of the city but rather because the people of Israel had forsaken God.

Yet while the title of the book speaks of sorrow, grief, sadness and misfortune, there is within it a statement of faith. We find in the passage for today a statement of God’s involvement in our lives, especially when we think that He has forgotten about us.

The lament of the people was for a God they felt was gone; a God who had left the people to suffer. Yet the problem was that God had not forgotten the people of Israel but rather that the people of Israel had forgotten God. When we forget God, then our lives tumble out of control. When God is a part of our lives, our lives are in control. The call of Lamentations is not one of complaining and grieving but rather how we can regain the presence of God in our lives.

There are certainly times when things look hopeless or beyond anything that we can do. I am certain that many people feel that way right now. We see everything the world today and wonder how it is that God could allow such things to happen.

And when what happens seems to only happen to us, then the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness becomes even stronger. Our ability to survive becomes less and less when we feel that we are alone in the world and that no one appreciates that which we do.

I think that is the point that Jesus made with the disciples. This passage is also mentioned in Matthew and it comes after the disciples have been challenged to do the good works of the Gospel message. Failing to drive out some demons, the disciples call for Jesus to give them faith. Yet Jesus points out that by faith alone they could move mountains (in Matthew) or uproot the mulberry tree and its complicated root system.

A Christian must always be prepared to endure the demands of the kingdom, even when it seems impossible to do so or even when it seems that one has done enough. In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus pointed out that the servants of that time did not have the opportunity to forgo doing another task. Yet in crying for Jesus to teach them faith that is what the disciples did.

Jesus’ message of love, hope and peace was a radical new view of service. It is perhaps the hardest part of the message. It says that even when you have done what you were asked to do, more is expected. And when you expect payment for what you have done, you find that there is no extra payment for the extra work.

If we focus our lives on the present world, it is very difficult to see how the Gospel works. We expect that we only need to do the minimum in order to reap the maximum rewards. We are used to solving monumental tasks in terms of monumental solutions. It never occurs to us that the solution can be in expressed in the simplest or smallest terms.

Jesus chose the mustard seed because it is one of the smallest seeds we know; yet the benefits of that seed exceed its initial size. When one in our community is faced with monumental struggles, it is imperative that they know the solution comes not from within but rather from the community of support that they have.

It is not clear why Paul wrote that second letter to Timothy but it certainly was written as a means of encouraging Timothy to hold to the course that he had started. One other reason Paul wrote Timothy was to remind him that he was not alone in the work that he was doing. That he was a part of a community of faith, that despite all the troubles that he was encountering and the feeling that he was not being successful there were those in his community who supported him and sought to help him in any way possible.

So to is it with us. We build courage in others to remain steadfast in their faith by helping them reconnect with God in life-affirming ways. Paul shared with Timothy the gospel of Jesus Christ, the salvation, grace, victory over death, the light of life eternal, and the power of those truths even today. Paul understood that true courage, the ability to stay the course comes from looking to Christ, not looking within us.

And when we are asked to take on one additional task; when we are asked to one more thing for the community or the church, we need to know that the solution comes not from within but rather from God. There is a need to see that solution in the church today. Not just the Methodist Church in general but Walker Valley UMC specifically.

The challenge we have to find the leaders for the coming year. The challenge is to make Walker Valley UMC a stronger part of the community so that it is there when people need for it to be there. One might see the passage from Lamentations in a very dismal sense, that of a deserted and lonely community with people needing help but not finding it. But it can be seen as a promise of hope. As you leave today, think of the mustard seed. Faith, like the mustard seed, can be strong enough to move mountains. Faith can give you the opportunity to the see the future in terms of hope, not despair. There is a challenge before us this day. Through faith, we will find the ways to meet it.

The Good Life


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2007.

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This has been edited since it was first posted on 29 September 2007.

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The other day I attended a meeting about a financial program. I did so to help a friend in the program meet a goal. In order for me to help my friend I had to attend this meeting which was essentially designed to get me interested in the program. This was somewhat defeating because I had already been exposed to the information.

The premise of the financial program is that financial success comes from planning and the establishment of financial goals. A second premise is that meeting these goals comes through time and cannot be accomplished overnight. As far as that goes, it was an example of good stewardship.

But the presentation itself bothered me. It was a presentation that said there was no hope in what we do. There were three presenters at this meeting and all three presumed that those who were attending the meeting were in jobs that offered little financial reward, no hopes for advancement, and very little overall job satisfaction. The only reason that they offered for going to work was because one needs a paycheck.

But they suggested that with each payday comes the possibility of job loss as well. You got the impression that though there were other options that one could take, the only true option for job satisfaction, advancement, and financial reward was their program and its offers of riches and security.

I don’t deny that there is some truth to what they said about work. There are many individuals who are truly stuck in a job with no hope for advancement and which provide no satisfaction. There are many people for whom each payday does bring the possibility of job loss or reduction. The recent UAW strike against General Motors pointed this out very vividly.

We too often equate job security with hope for the future. The future is often unknown, a dark and fearsome place in which we dare not tread. We seek security as a means of anchoring our lives so that we can make tentative steps into the future. But when we anchor our lives in the present it becomes very difficult to move forward.

We also equate the size of our paycheck with job satisfaction and security as well. With enough financial resources we can get whatever it is we need to find security, happiness, and enjoyment in life. We live in a consumer-oriented society that says that the “one with the most toys wins!” Maybe, just maybe, we tell ourselves that if we get enough of the right things, then everything will turn out right.

I have also noticed that there is an increase in the number of casinos in this country. Once, many years ago, gambling and casinos were limited to Nevada but now it seems as if there are casinos is every state in the Union. Similarly, the lottery was almost non-existent or limited. Now, it seems that almost every state has a lottery of some sort. People flock to casinos because there is the lure of immediate riches and lotteries promise fantastic sums of money to the winners.

I don’t deny that it is fun to go to casinos and enjoy the entertainment and perhaps partake of some of the games that are offered. I don’t deny that there is a thrill in putting down a dollar or two in hopes of multiplying the returns by thousands or perhaps millions. But you do so with the understanding that you don’t gamble with money that you can’t afford to lose; you don’t gamble with the grocery money or the mortgage payment. And you had better understand that the odds of winning millions in a lottery so that your future is insured are incalculable or improbable. The people who win consistently at the casino work at the game they play and the casino is not always happy that they come. Casinos want the person who does not understand the game, not the student. And the casinos do not help when it turns out that a player is addicted to gambling; they take the money and leave the person to deal with the consequences.

And while the United Methodist Church has voiced its disapproval with gambling, it has not been a loud voice. I would have thought that the United Methodist churches in Mississippi would have voiced a concern about the building of the bigger and more structurally-stable casinos on the Gulf Coast following the destruction of the gambling industry after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But I guess the desire for an economic base was stronger than concern for the destruction of family and life.

That is the problem with the quick fix theory of economic riches. People accept casinos because there is the promise of jobs, even if the jobs are service sector type jobs. People accept the lottery in their state because it comes with a promise that other areas, such as education, are supported. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the promises made with regards to the profits from casinos and lotteries are not always met. In cases where money was promised for educational support, it has been diverted to pay other state bills. There was a promise of hope but it was not delivered.

I suppose that it wouldn’t be so bad but we hear the same message in too many churches on Sunday and on multiple cable channels throughout the week. The message of the prosperity gospel tells us that our own satisfaction and rewards come when we plant a seed in the minister’s garden. Unfortunately, the only ones who seem to enjoy the harvest from those gardens are the ones who encouraged the planting of the seeds and sowed the false gospel.

Why do people insist on giving money when it seems so obvious that the only ones asking for the money are charlatans and fools? Why do people jump into business ventures that promise enormous riches with little effort? Is it because they see no hope in what they are doing at the present time or in the future?

Planning for the future is the centerpiece of today’s Old Testament reading. (Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3a, 6 – 15)  The people of Jeremiah’s time were more concerned with the impending doom of Israel. Jeremiah was imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that were to come. But while Jeremiah is sitting in the jail cell, he arranges to buy some property. His act of investing is a statement that he trusts God and that he, Jeremiah, knows that good things are about to happen. We will learn in a few weeks that Jeremiah is set to announce a new covenant between God and the people of Israel. It will be a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. It is an announcement that brings the people hope and that is what we should be considering as well.

Can we find hope in what we do and the money that we earn? We probably have all heard that “money is the root of all evil.” Thus, we might be surprised that it is not money but the “love of money” that is the root cause. (1 Timothy 6: 9) So what is the outcome of life if we pursue a job for money only or if we accept that premise of the prosperity gospel that it is proper and acceptable to seek riches for riches sake? If we are so eager to seek riches and riches alone, will we not be like those who Paul characterizes as wandering away from the faith and piercing themselves with many pains? (1 Timothy 6: 10)  Can we conclude that our search for riches that drives our lives and which Paul so wants to discourage us from doing blinds us from what we should be doing?

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19 – 31), Jesus speaks to that point. Each day a rich man walked by a poor man named Lazarus and each day the rich man ignored him. Now, this rich man would privately tell you that he kept the commandments, paid his tithe at the temple, and was a righteous man. But each day he still ignored Lazarus and when he died, he found out what his ignorance meant.

It is important to first note that we live in a society where the rich and powerful have names and the poor and helpless are unknown. Yet, in this parable, it is a rich man who is unnamed and it is the poor man who is named. As with so many other examples, Jesus turns the rules of society backwards.

When this unnamed rich man dies, he finds himself condemned to the fires of Sheol and tormented by unimaginable pain. Only then does he become aware of Lazarus. Only then does he see Lazarus, who each day lived in unimaginable suffering, being welcomed and comforted by the angels of heaven. It was a scene that the rich man never imagined and it could only have added to the pain from the fires that he was feeling. And when he begged Abraham to send a message to his brothers not to make the same mistake that he had made and Abraham told him that the message had been sent but his brothers would not listen, the pain grew even more severe.

What then should 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 citizenry could actually choose to leave whenever they wanted to do so. But, just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, and hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, “if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?”

Because, in spite of the misery that comes with the choice, they always insist on choosing to keep something. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things.

Either you say to God, “Thy will be done” or God will say to you, “thy will be done.” If God speaks to you first, then you will be like the rich man caught in a 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 was wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches that separated them in the real world so he could not cross the massive chasm that separated them in the afterlife. He chose not to cross when he could and it prevented him from crossing when he wanted to cross.

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 wealth but rather community. Those in poverty are often shut out or shunted aside by society. A community cannot go forward if there are any left behind.

And as we learn from the case of the rich man and his treatment of Lazarus during his life, it is impossible to change the results after you died. We often see Christianity in single terms, in terms of what it means to us alone. But even though we choose to follow Christ individually, we are part of a community and a community that leaves some out or ignores them will not grow.

Good stewardship is more than good planning of one’s resources. It is about using one’s resources, however limited they may be, so that others may benefit as well. Paul’s advice to Timothy this day is not about money nor is it about avoiding those who seek only money. I think Paul’s advice is about the quality of life one leads. Is it a life that enables not only the individual but those in whom he or she comes into contact to have a good quality of life as well? Is it a life in which the qualities of Christ are evident?

Stewardship is more than just financial planning; it is about a quality of life that brings security and happiness. Jeremiah planned for the future that would come with the Messiah; we know that the Messiah is here and our lives reflect that presence. If we are to have the good life, are we to do it in a way that offers no hope and very little security? Or are we to have the good life in Christ with the promise of victory over sin and death? The good life is truly ours for the choosing.


A New Set of Rules


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4, 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

As I have mentioned before, my favorite book in the Bible is probably Ecclesiastes. I came to know the verses from this book from sources outside the Bible, namely “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds. I suppose that one could say that you are supposed to find your interests in something from a devoted study of the subject but I think that when you can see something you have studied from another view, it offers a deeper meaning.

I did study the Bible when I was young and while in conformation class but it was just another class with more things that had to be memorized for the moment and such things just don’t carry much weight with me. But when I can see something outside its context and I have the opportunity to think about it, then it does have some meaning.

By the same token, my least favorite book in the Bible is probably the “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” I have always had a hard time hearing people speaking of this book with a finality that has no option. Perhaps these are the “End Times” but if we see them coming, shouldn’t we be working to stop them? To presume that war and violence are necessary for Christ to come again on this earth seems to be a rather distorted view of the Gospel message first given in the Nazareth synagogue some two thousand years ago. War, death, destruction, and violence have no place in the Gospel message but those who preach the “End Times” seem to think just that; that war, death, destruction, and violence are what Jesus meant when He proclaimed that he was bringing health, hope, and freedom. I have studied Revelations and I find a message that echoes those same words of Jesus, not the words that John Darby found. But Revelations will never be one of my favorites.

And then there is the Book of Job. There have been times in my life when I thought that I was reliving the life of Job, of having my life and possessions stripped away and suffering for no apparent reason. But as is the case with any of the books in the Bible, further study showed a different story. And it is a story that echoes throughout the ages, of people holding onto their faith even in the toughest of times.

Job is one of the books in the Bible that offers an alternative wisdom, of a different view from the mainstream. The writer William Safire viewed the story of Job and his encounter with God as a victory for Job because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It is a model for the miraculous thing that individuals such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrei Sakharov accomplished. Safire concluded that injustice in all forms need not be accepted; on the contrary, justice must be pursued and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

But the rules by which society operated in Job’s time and by which we still operate today say that bad things do not happen to good people. If something has befallen you, it is because you have done something wrong. The rich are rich because God has blessed them; the poor are poor because they have lost God’s blessing. Clearly, to many in this story, Job’s losses of health and wealth are a clear sign that he had displeased God and that he should blame God for his troubles. That was the thinking two thousand years ago and it is the thinking even today. How can God claim to be a loving God when there is war, death and destruction in this world and young children die for no apparent reason?

It is difficult for some to accept the words of Job in this day and age when there are no explanations for what is happening. All Job wants is to meet with God and get an explanation for what has transpired. In the end, he will meet God and he will hear God and he will accept what God says. But we are not willing to persevere as Job did; we expect an answer right now. We speak of our right to take an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth, without realizing that in demanding such “justice” we are doing exactly the opposite of what we are asked to do.

The rules of society, the rules that we expect the church to follow and teach, demand revenge, not justice. The rules of society, the rules that we expect the church to follow and teach, say escalating war and striking first are the answer to threats by our enemies. Society’s rules say that one’s status in society determines one’s power, yet Jesus would put a child in His lap and say those who were not like children would never enter the Kingdom.

We put a great emphasis on power, fame, and riches. And we have allowed our society to be ruled by those who would only enrich themselves. I have been reading one of Bill Moyers’ books (Moyers on Democracy) lately. His life continues to be one of faith and hope, even when those who would take hope away have done the best they could to silence him. He is an unabashed liberal who saw the hypocrisy in a political system that taught that all are created equal but which would suppress the rights of minorities and women in the name of justice. He has taken to task many of those who have led this country the past few years for their greed, their lust for power, and their absolute dislike for openness and honesty.

To some extent, he has taken on the role of a 21st century Amos. Amos lived in Israel some three thousand years ago during a time of tremendous prosperity. It was a time of immense wealth for some but not for all. The rich were getting richer but the poor were getting poorer.

In Amos 2: 6 – 8 we read that the rich would sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They would trample the head of the poor into the dust and push the afflicted out of the way. Translations are often a tricky thing but in essence Amos is telling us that the rich and powerful are selling the poor and the needy into slavery and they were doing it through legal methods. And all the while, the rich and powerful were in the synagogue and the temple every Sabbath praising God. Yet, as Amos will say later in Chapter 5 (verses 21 – 27), despite all that the people of Israel were doing, the singing of songs of praises, the offerings, the festivals, they might as well have been worshiping some astral deities because there was no justice in the land for the poor and the disenfranchised. (adapted from The Phoenix Affirmation by Eric Elnes)

It isn’t much different today. We put great credence in the law and we allow the law to take away peoples’ homes. Our legislators write laws that favor to the rich and the powerful and give them tax breaks that the poor and middle class must pay for. We are arguing for laws that would deny health insurance to many people because we are more interested in the god of mammon than we are in making sure that all the children of God are healthy. We have created laws that create injustice and call it right. We believe in the law and the rules that are set by such laws.

The Pharisees and scribes constantly sought to trap Jesus in the law, the laws they had strived so hard to keep in place so as to keep them in power. If it was not divorce, it was marriage; if it wasn’t healing the sick, it was working on the Sabbath. But the writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus did not hold his position as God’s Son over us, as many of might have done or have tried to do.

And in placing Himself on the same level as us, Jesus changed the rules. He gave us a new set of rules. He gave us a chance to seek hope and justice, not condemnation. All Job asked for was the opportunity to meet with God and discuss what was happening. For us, that is exactly what Jesus did; He changed the rules that society operated under.

We have allowed the scribes and Pharisees of today to again rule us by laws that limit life and keep them in power. It is time we operate under a new set of rules, rules that say that all are welcome into God’s Kingdom and that the sick will be made well, the lame shall walk, the deaf shall hear, the blind shall see, and the oppressed shall be set free. It is time for a new set of rules and those rules begin with the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior.

Fair and Balanced


This is the message I gave on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.

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“Fair and balanced” seems to the phrase of the day. It certainly seems to be what gets people’s attention. But I will state categorically that the one thing this sermon probably will not be is fair or balanced.

In all honesty, I do not see how any preacher can be fair and balanced when preparing a sermon. When we look at those factors that give us concern in today’s society, it is very difficult to be fair. Poverty, homelessness, sickness, discrimination cannot be treated fairly. To speak out against injustice or war cannot be balanced against a case for injustice or war. Jesus made it very clear that our responsibilities were towards the homeless, the sick, the needy, those in prison.

“…for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 34 – 46)

Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, we find that many congregations do not want to hear what their responsibilities are; they do not want to be reminded that the fulfillment of the Gospel comes through what they do. I came of age, as it were, in the late 60’s.

Though each of these ministers was of a different denomination, they all showed the same concerns for justice and peace. It wouldn’t seem so important to note that today but I don’t see the same concerns in many of today’s preachers. It would seem that people today want church to be the one time when they are reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be a successful church if there is no outreach, if the people of the church do not take the Gospel with them from the sanctuary into the outside world.

Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, many congregations today do want to hear what their responsibilities are. They do not want to be reminded that the Gospel is only true because of what they themselves do. A few weeks ago, I quoted the Baptist minister Tony Campolo, and I again remind you what he said,

… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (Tony Campolo, quoted in Christian Week magazine (reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03)

It would seem that people want churches to be a safe place, a place where they are not reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be successful if it has no outreached, if the Gospel message isn’t taken past the boundaries of the local community.

One reason for this is that technology has brought the outside world in closer to our own daily lives. Yet, the church as not adapted; for many, the church is till remembered as the place where they grew up. It gives them a sense of order to remember the days past in a world seemingly full of chaos. In the past, one knew who needed help, one knew who were the “outcasts” and problem people in society. Society only reached the limits of the community. It was easy for the church of old to reach these people and draw them directly within the ministry of the congregation. But in today’s society, those with needs no longer have names. Life has become too complex and local congregations no longer “see” their responsibilities as clearly as they once did.

This change in society makes many people uncomfortable, if not down right frightened. And people do not want to be uncomfortable or frightened. Our whole political system is based not on developing progressive ideas but on frightening people. Campaign slogans today are more “vote for me because the other candidate will take away everything you have” that “vote for me because my ideas or plans are better.” And churches seem to be the same way.

We have retreated to the Old Testament mentality that the ill fortunes of one’s life are because one has sinned or done something terribly wrong. Churches denounce the sin and then denounce the sinner, casting them out from the church body rather than bringing them in. People flock to churches because it makes them safe, but only because the world outside is locked outside and cannot come in. Inside the safety of the sanctuary, they cannot see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the needy. “Lord, when did we see you?” is never asked in the safe, fair and balanced churches of today.

It seems that as the world changes, the church seems to be holding back, not easily adapting to the needs of society. And at a time when people need the church the most, the church seems to be closing its doors to them. The people of today’s churches do not want to go out into the world where there this trouble and chaos nor do they want to let it in to their safe world. For to do so would bring the wilderness into their lives.

In this wilderness, they would be like Job was in the Old Testament reading, wandering and looking for God. But Job was wandering and looking for God for a reason. People today are afraid to look for God. People today do not have the trust in God that Job did. Job knew that he had done nothing wrong nor had he done anything to cause the discomfort, pain, and misery that had been brought into his life. He simply wanted to present his case to God because he trusted in God to do what was right. We are not willing to trust in God as Job did because we are not willing to take the extra step.

We are like the rich young ruler; we expect to be rewarded for what we are expected to do. Anything beyond that is beyond our rationale belief because it requires risk and stepping out of our comfort zone. But as people close the doors of the church to the outside, they are also forgetting what the promise of the Gospel is.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we have in Jesus the one person who can take away the fears that come with being in the wilderness. In Jesus, we have someone who has experienced life as we have and can take our case directly to God. We do not need to find God as Job sought God because Jesus is that single connection to Him. No longer do we need fear the wilderness because Jesus has been there before us and can take us through it.

It is clear that life is neither fair nor is it balanced. Even Peter recognized the inequity of serving Christ. He, like the others, gave up everything to follow Christ and had done so without any hint of what they would get. The disciples even fought over their own place in the kingdom, expecting that their views of society would be the views that would set the rules for the heavenly kingdom. But Jesus pointed out that though they may not see it on earth, in the end, there would be a reward for all that they had done.

And we are reminded today, as we come to the table this morning, that no matter how scared or frightened by the prospects of what the world has to offer, no matter how reluctant we are to let the world come into our safe sanctuary of quiet and rest, it is nothing when it is compared to what Jesus was about to go through.

If things had been fair, Jesus would not have died on the cross but would have lead a long, healthy, prosperous, and successful life as a teacher. But then His ministry would have failed. His sacrifice on the cross, remembered by our communion today, was so that we could live.

In a fair and balanced world, there would be no need for a church. But the world outside is neither fair nor balanced. It is a world that brings despair and exclusion; it is a world that strips those without the dignity it gives to those who have; it is a world that says the word of God is only for a select few.

But as we open the table to all who come, we also open our church and our hearts to all, saying that there is hope for those in despair, there is no longer an exclusion from the world, there is dignity, and there is a world in which all are welcome. Life in the world may not be fair or balanced, but a life in Christ surely is.


Who Shall Serve


This is the message for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 23: 1- 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.

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A young man comes to Jesus and asks what it will take to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds that to inherit eternal life he must obey the commandments and then he lists seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments. “Of course I have kept these commandments,” the young man replies. “Then,” Jesus said, “sell all that you have and give your money to the poor.” The young man leaves, grieving, for he cannot or would not do that which he was asked to do.

As much as this Gospel reading is about money, I think that it is about much more. For the commandments that Jesus listed dealt with the ethical and fair treatment of people. To paraphrase another saying of Jesus, what good are the things that you own if they cannot be used to help others. What Jesus was saying, at least to me, in this Gospel reading, is that you must reorder your priorities and that when you do so, the rewards, that which you gain, will be multiplied.

Albert Edward Day wrote,

I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we so often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, with their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “In all their afflictions, he was afflicted.”

Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives. (From The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day)

There has probably been no greater act of defiance in the history of the Christian church than when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. In making his complaints with the Catholic Church known publicly, Luther knew that he was putting his career in the church on the line. But Luther also felt that the direction of the church at that time was not the direction it should, that it did not put the people first, and that people were in danger if no action was taken.

Similarly, John Wesley’s declaration to the Bishop of Bristol represented a major decision about his faith and his career:

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal.)

Such actions require that you have an understanding of what is needed at that time and place in history. It also means that you be willing to accept what comes. The young man in the Gospel was not willing to accept that the idea that to keep the commandments required deeper action than simple lip service to the commandments.

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all that seek it.

And when you take actions like Luther and Wesley did, you have to be prepared to face the consequences. For Luther, it was excommunication; for Wesley and the other preachers, who choose to follow him, it meant being barred from preaching in the churches.

To the elders of the Church of England, Wesley’s call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

In the Old Testament reading today, Job asks where God is. Job’s “comforters” try to tell him that what is happening to him is because he has sinned and lost favor with God. All Job wants is to hear directly from God why things were happening to him. It was not a complaint because Job knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong; all Job wants is quite literally a fair shake in life.

The same cry of where is God is heard today. But the cry today is that is one of loss and despair. In a world where violence is quickly becoming the norm, where the concern for others quickly gives way to concern only for oneself, it is easy to ask where God is in the world.

In Wesley’s time poverty was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you led a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

The arguments given for poverty were a lot like those that Job’s “comforters” used. Job must have sinned because one is not afflicted with all that he faced if he had not sinned. It is far too easy to talk about sin and to cast doubt about a person’s own righteousness than it is to take action in this world.

We can study all we want to about God and what Christianity is. But until we take action, we are like the young man who kept all the commandments but kept his money as well. Nothing has been gained. Until such time as we allow Christ to come into our hearts and allow Him to guide and direct us, we will never come to really know Christ.

The theme of the Book of Hebrews is a simple one. Jesus came to be with us so that we may know God firsthand. No longer would we have to search for the priest in order to make our thoughts known to God. With Jesus in our life, the doorway to God is always open.

Today is Laity Sunday. It is the one Sunday in the year where the efforts of the Laity are recognized. But each Sunday should be considered Laity Sunday because it falls to each and every one of us to take the message from the safety of the sanctuary out into the world.

Our actions do not have to be dramatic ones. To many times, people try to emulate the success of others, only to fail. The failure of a program to be successful is not because people didn’t undertake it but rather because it was the wrong idea for a given time and place.

Our challenge today is the single most difficult task we will ever face. We may not do much, just a simple smile. But such a smile, when it comes from the heart, is a sign that God is still here.

The call today is a very simple one. On this day when we honor those in the laity who serve God, who shall serve Him?


A Sense of Reward


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 16: 2 -15, Philippians 1: 21 –  30, and Matthew 20: 1 -16.

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It was, I believe the explorer Sir George Mallory, who was asked why someone would want to climb Mount Everest. His reply is the classic response for all great challenges, “Because it is there.” President John Kennedy, when laying down the challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade said, “We choose not to go because it is easy, but because it is difficult.” He said so knowing that we had yet to even orbit a man and that the equipment for completing the operation was not even on the drawing boards.

But it is very rare to see such an attitude today. For the most part, any new effort is met with skepticism and reluctance. Any challenge put forth to an individual today is often met with the response “What’s in it for me?” Were there still a sense of adventure in the world today, like there was in the early 60’s, mankind would have a presence on the moon and we would be well on our way to traveling to the planet Mars and perhaps beyond. The International Space Station would be have been completed and done so in a major effort of cooperation and collaboration worthy of its name, rather than piece meal and when ever it is possible.

Yes, there are challenges on this earth that need to be faced and priorities must be made so that those who are without have the basic needs. But when you take away adventure and the reason for going beyond the next curve in the road, you offer no hope to anyone.

The Israelites went out into the desert, not knowing what was before them, only that they were headed for the Promised Land. But the moment they became hungry, they began complaining. “Are we to die in the desert at the hands of the Lord when we could have had our fill at the dinner table in Egypt?” they cried, conveniently forgetting the life of slavery that went with that life.

The workers who worked the full day complained that they should have gotten more because they worked the most, forgetting that payment was made at the discretion of the landowner who paid them and it was the amount they had agreed to receive. You cannot complain when what you get is what you were told you would get.

It is hard to determine the reward that we should get for the work that we do. It has always amazed me to read about John Wesley and the early troubles he encountered in the development of the Methodist movement. We wear the badge of Methodist quite proudly, knowing that it was an epithet of slander and hatred.

Wesley openly opposed those who practiced what he called a lukewarm Christianity. He labored to bring every area of his own life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal, along with that of the other members of the fledgling Methodist revival, provoked ridicule. The name “Methodist” was given to this group because of their methodical devotion to daily rituals and the discipline they imposed on their lives.

Yet, even with a semi-monastic existence and a devotion to good works, each of these Oxford Methodists could claim the receipt of certainty found in God’s love. Their toil and labors, their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, sacrificial good works left them far short of peace and joy promised in the Gospel. Later, Wesley would speak of these times as being in a “spiritual wilderness.”

The meaning that Wesley so desperately sought came only after that momentous night at Aldersgate when he welcomed the presence of the Holy Spirit into his life. It was this Presence which gave both John and Charles Wesley the sense of peace and comfort so often stated in the Gospel. It was the same for Paul; as we read in his letter to the Philippians, it was the presence of Christ in his life that gave the meaning to his (Paul’s) life.

Wesley never sought to create a new church; in fact, he remained a minister in the Church of England all his life. What he sought to do was to bring a sense of purpose to the stated mission of the church, to give meaning to the words of the Gospel. How should we measure the results of Wesley’s work? It can never be said that he understood what he had accomplished, but no less a source than the Cambridge Modern History stated that the most positive influence in eighteenth-century England was “John Wesley and the religious revival to which he gave his name and life.”

But what Wesley sought could not have been accomplished had he not accepted the Holy Spirit into his life that night at Aldersgate. There is no way we can ever seek to gain any rewards if our rewards are tied to earth. Perhaps my favorite Bible passage is Ecclesiastes 3 (“To every thing there is a season”). It speaks of our time under earth; but in chapter 2, the Preacher spoke of the futility of a life spent trying to gain everything there was, as if it would provide the meaning of life. Just as Wesley saw that nothing was possible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, so too did the Preacher point out that life without God was meaningless.

There is nothing wrong with seeking rewards for what we do; it is perhaps only natural. But it always amazes me when I read about some individual who no one knew and everyone ignored who gives a college or university a tremendous amount of money simply because it was the right thing to do. At least one church received the money to build a parsonage because, on one Sunday, the congregation was nice to a stranger passing through. Nothing was said but this stranger was made to feel welcome one particular Sunday. And many years later, a check from the estate was mailed to the church. The reward for simply doing what is right can never be measured in the present time.

Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church is faced with a challenge. If this congregation is to go beyond the present time, there are those who must step up, who must face the challenge without any sense of reward or entitlement. It is not a challenge to do everything by themselves, but rather pick an area of leadership and help the entire congregation move into the future. There are some that will say that it cannot be done and if no one picks up the challenge, that will be the case.

In those days prior to that wondrous encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, John Wesley was near death. Because he saw his method as a failure, because he saw his missionary work in Georgia as a failure, Wesley came back to England prepared to die. Yet, he did not die but rather he surrendered his soul to the Holy Spirit. In turning over his life, he gained that which he sought. He may never have understood the reward that came with his work; such rewards are only measured through the pages of time. But he did gain a sense of peace that he had long sought.

So too is it for us. We may never gain a sense of reward for the work that we do now. But that is not why we do it; we do it so that others may gain the reward of having Christ as a presence in their lives. And that may be the best reward we can ever experience.