“The Difference”


This will be on the back page of the bulletin for services at Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, September 23, 2018 (18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).  Services are at 10 and you are always welcome.


From the first time that I had to write a weekly message, I have always been amazed at the timeliness of the Scriptures and how our response to the issues of the day can be addressed by the words of the lectionary readings.  The Scriptures themselves may not offer the answer we seek but they will certainly lead us to the solution.  And that is perhaps the difference between simple knowledge and wisdom.

If the primary message of the Scriptures is a description of our relationship with God, then the Wisdom Literature of the Bible tells us how we are to apply that knowledge to our relationship with others.

The disciples were raised to see that everyone had a place in society, a place determined by one’s gender, one’s age, one’s birthplace, and one’s economic status.  Yet, from the very beginning Jesus’ teachings challenged those very ideas.  Much to the dismay of those who felt they had the right and the privilege to be first, Jesus said that made one last.  And that being in a position of power and authority meant that you were the servant of the people and not that the people were your servant.

Following Christ is often a difficult task because it so challenges us.  But if we open our minds as we open our hearts, we can begin to truly understand what we are being asked to do.  And that is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.                        ~~Tony Mitchell

 

“The Wisdom We Seek”


Here is the message that I gave at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church (Mason, TN) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 21 September 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Proverbs 31: 10 – 31; James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9: 30 – 37 (changed the lectionary date from 17th to 18th Sunday after Pentecost on 31 August 2014)

I am sure that we all remember Benjamin Franklin’s dictum “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Wisdom has been something that we have looked for and cherished in our leaders and in ourselves. When we speak of a great leader, we often say he or she was a wise and just leaders.

I think that is part of the reason why the Old Testament readings for the last few Sundays have come from the Book of Proverbs. This collection of wise sayings was designed to offer ways of leadership to the people of Israel.

Of course today, when we view the actions and behavior of politicians, no matter if they are national, state, or local leaders, I think that the term “just plain dumb” comes to mind more readily. For it seems that our leaders and many people today have forgotten what true wisdom is and have sought success without wisdom.

Solomon knew that gaining wisdom was not the easy task. Faced with many difficult challenges, especially where the governing of Israel was concerned, he knew he could have trouble if his wisdom was lacking. So when God asked him what he wanted most, Solomon asked for wisdom.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.

And now, O Lord my god, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life. (1 Kings 3: 3 – 14)

Now, it is interesting to note that Solomon, who could have asked for anything that he desired, asked for wisdom and in doing so, got everything else.

In the reading from the Letter of James today, James points out that there are two kinds of wisdom.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

As James points out, when our wisdom comes from above, when we turn to God, then the wisdom we gain can better our lives. That is what Solomon found out. But if our wisdom is driven from our earthly desires, then results we obain can never be successful.

Throughout the history of the Kingdom of Israel, the Israelites sought leaders who were as much wise men as they were powerful leaders. And when they were not wise but boastful, when they choose to leave God, failure was often the result. Both Solomon and David, at the end of their reigns found this out as well.

As Solomon found out, seeing wisdom first will lead to everything else. For if we do not have wisdom, if we cannot know how to make the right decision, then all that we do will be based on our earthly desires rather than on our heavenly goals. But God did give Solomon one instruction to go with the fame and fortune that would come with his wisdom. He (Solomon) had to follow in the path of God. If he left the path of God, he would find that everything he had would be lost.

The disciples are walking with Jesus to Capernaum but it must have not been a good walk for as the scripture notes,

. . . he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

It is easy to understand why they did not understand the nature of the resurrection because their wisdom, as James might say, came from the earth and was based on worldly experiences, not from God.

Jesus had been telling them about His coming death and resurrection but the disciples did not understand what he was talking about. For as the next part of the gospel reading tells us, the disciples were more interested in their place in the kingdom and who would be the greatest.

As Jesus tells his disciples, as He is telling us,

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Who ever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

There are those who have trouble with this approach. For common wisdom, wisdom from the earth, if you will, says that we cannot be last. We cannot put others before us. Yet, what is that we most admire about Mother Theresa? That she forsake everything because those for whom she ministered had nothing. I found it very interesting to read that she would go to a banquet to accept an award but leave before the dinner was served because the banquet was more that what the people of her ministry were eating.

I find the following an interesting commentary on the nature of thought and wisdom.

The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors; that which it loves, and also that which it fears; it reaches the height of its cherished aspirations; it falls to the level of its unchastened desires, and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own.

Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own fruitage of opportunity and circumstance. Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bad fruit.

The outer world of circumstance shapes itself to the inner world of thought, and both pleasant and unpleasant external conditions are factors which make for the ultimate good of the individual. As the reaper of his own harvest, man learns both by suffering and bliss.

Following the inmost desires, aspirations, thoughts, by which one allows oneself to be dominated (pursuing the will-o’-the-wisps of impure imagining or steadfastly walking the highway of strong and high endeavor), a person at last arrives at their fruition and fulfillment in the outer condition of life. The laws of growth and adjustment everywhere obtain. (“As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen)

From where do our thoughts come from; from where do we gain our wisdom? The challenge we face today, the decision we must make today is from where shall our wisdom come from. It is an easy thing to look at the world from a worldly viewpoint but what will be gained? If we take Christ into our own heart, if we allow His presence in our lives each day, the wisdom we gain will provide us with the right direction in our lives and make the lives of others better as well. If we are to seek wisdom, then we must understand how we are to use that wisdom..

My own readings this week focused on being a wise steward, of understanding that what we have comes from God. If we think with the wisdom of the world around us, we can never understand what God wants us to do, we can never reach the Kingdom of Heaven. But when we accept Christ in our hearts, the wisdom we gain provides us with the riches we seek but can never have.

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.

————————————————————–

“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.

—————————————————————————-

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?


What Do We Say?


I am preaching at Edenville United Methodist Church in New Milford, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost.

————————————————-

What did you say last Monday when you came home and learned that three young girls had been killed in another school shooting? How do you explain the appearance of violence and murder in a community based on non-violence principles? And what do you say when the victims of the crime offer forgiveness to the killer and his family?

I cannot immediately explain why someone would decide to plan and then kill anyone, much less several people. The school shooting in Wisconsin the week before is perhaps easier to explain because the student was angry with the school and he had decided to take his anger out on the principal. The same explanation can help us explain the Columbine shootings; the young men involved there were angry with their classmates and sought revenge. But this explanation does not go far enough in explaining the other Colorado school shooting two weeks ago.

And though we can offer a rational explanation for the behavior of all those involved; it still doesn’t explain why all of these individuals decided to take their particular course of action.

Are we so enamored with violence that we have come to think that it is the only solution to the problems of society? Are we so fixated with violence that we think it will cure any problem we may have, whether they are real or perceived?

Against the backdrop of questions that we may not be able to answer, we are reintroduced to the story of Job this week. This book, written soon after the exile in Babylon, is an example of what is called subversive wisdom. It is an alternative to the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs.

It is, for many, one of the great classics of world literature. The story of Job is the story of a righteous man from whom everything is taken – all his children, all his wealth, and finally all of his health. Its subject matter is a question that humankind has pondered ever since it had a sense of who they were: “Why should innocent persons suffer when the wicked seem to live in comfort and security?”

The early prophets attempted to deal with the question in terms of the Israelite nation but the writer of Job deals with it on an individual basis. It is a direct challenge to the time-honored and still accepted doctrine that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits. (1)

The dialogues between Job and his “comforters” are a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will suffer”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something very wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”) and that this experience should lead to a greater piety. This experience should, in the end, lead to everything being all right.

But it is a conclusion and an argument that Job will not accept. From the very beginning, he is outraged at the injustice of what is happening. Job will not accept the results unless he is given an opportunity to see God and have God explain what is happening. Job rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.

In the end, Job will come to peace with himself. He will meet God and find out that perhaps he, Job, is unable to understand all that makes up the world. Job finds out what we ourselves too often know, we are immersed in an overwhelming truth, a truth that we can only know through a limited view of the world.

In today’s Old Testament reading (2), Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of his character and actions are highlighted. Job is characterized as blameless and upright, meaning that he is “straightforward” and “ethically straight”. He is a man with a spotless character. Like Daniel, Job is blameless before his human critics but not necessarily before God.

But from the very beginning, in Job 2: 9 – 10, he is severely tested. His wife questions his integrity when she asks “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” These are the very words that God used early in verse 3. They are words that emphasize Job’s perseverance. But his wife misconstrues this for religious fanaticism; she thinks that he is blindly refusing to see the reality of his desperate situation.

The thing is that the Book of Job alone does not present concrete solutions about why people suffer and how it is that we are to combat injustice. So what does this all mean for us? Are we to accept that there is no solution? How can we find hope in a world that offers no hope? Job’s wife’s comments precede the thoughts of many people today when they see the violence, hatred, angry and angst that pervade this society. They cannot accept that a loving God would allow this to happen. They get angry with God and walk away. They are closed to the words of God which still offer hope and possibility. Those who turn away from God do not see a world around them; they are blind to those who can help.

Job’s response and his urging that we accept both good and bad from God anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job; that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even if they are unable to understand why the bad things happen. Just as Job finds trust in God at the end of the book, so too can we find trust in God through Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message to accept with conventional wisdom. Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; it only can accept the visible world and ordinary experiences. This leads us to see Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process and transformation, we see it as something where God has already done what has to be done.

This makes God a lawgiver and a judge. It is why the Pharisees and Sadducees constantly tested Jesus, as they did in today’s Gospel reading. (3)  Their questions were not necessarily about divorce, though this passage is the central tenet for the church’s view on divorce, but rather about the adherence to the law.

If you held to the requirements of the law, things were good; if you did not, then you could expect bad things. If you follow the requirements of the law, God will give you what you want and need; if you do not, then God will withhold the good and punish you. God’s forgiveness becomes conditional; it is only for those who believe and it only lasts until you sin again.

Jesus changed this. No longer is God solely a lawgiver or judge; now He is our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it. No longer is God’s grace limited to a select few; it becomes open to all who accept Christ in their lives.

In all the questions that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked, it was always about holding the myriad requirements of the law, even when it was impossible or contradictory. Their lives and power were dependent on the people mindlessly following what they, the leaders, said. Christ changes that; now when we live our lives in accordance with God’s commands, the outcome changes.

Stop and consider what happens when we accept Christ into our lives. In the Epistle reading for today (4) the writer of Hebrews tells us that our lives change because of Christ’s presence. Jesus takes on our burdens and frees us. No longer are we entangled by the requirements of the law. Now we, the people of the 21st century, are the custodians of the journey that began so long ago in Israel.

In the world of today, based on conventional wisdom and the notion that bad things happen to sinners and good things happen to the righteous, we have a hard time accepting this. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (5)

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (6)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus.

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to have become so much a part of our lives, in light of the poverty and homelessness that is so much a part of our lives, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to have become the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

When the world around is filled with senseless violence and poverty and oppression, will you say that it is God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls? When innocent children are killed and lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will you cry out to God that it is His fault?

Or will you say that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Will you say that He came to save this world from sin and death by His own sacrifice on the Cross? Will you say that because He came to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, enable the lame to walk, set the oppressed free and bring hope to the downtrodden and forgotten, that you are willing to walk with Him today?

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. (8) And each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference.

We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.

As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (9)

We must also remember that we are Methodists. And our heritage is based on the feelings of John Wesley that the church cannot be silent when people are hungry, or sick, or naked, or homeless, or in prison and without hope. John Wesley could not stand aside and let the church ignore those who were poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in jail, even if the conventional wisdom was that the cause of poverty, hunger, the lack of clothes, or ill-health was the intrinsic sinfulness of the individual. John Wesley started a movement because he could not accept the injustice of a society that would cast aside the lesser members of society.

There is violence in this world; there is injustice in this world. There is hatred and oppression. We can simply say that it is God’s will and there is nothing we can do; we can say that God doesn’t care and nothing we do will change that. Or we can open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit; we can open our ears to hear the call of God through Christ calling us to be His people.

You are being asked today if you are willing to follow, if you are willing to take on the task of completing the answer to a perplexing question. 

UMH #593 – Here I Am

As you leave this place today, as you go out into the world, how will you respond to the call of the Lord?  At the beginning of this message, we sang the spiritual, “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me.”  The journey that we are about to begin today is not an easy one.  It is not easy answering God’s call.  But we do not do either alone.  All we have to do is ask Jesus to take our hand and guide us through this journey that we are about to make.  Our closing hymn this morning is #474 – “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

(1) Adapted from http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-103,pageNum-42.html

(2) Job 1:1; 2: 1 – 10

(3) Mark 10: 2 – 16

(4) Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12

(5) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(6) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244

(9) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell