“Where Is Your God?”

This will be the back page of the bulletin for the services this coming Sunday (September 30, 2018, 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B) at Fishkill United Methodist Church.

There are two interesting things about this week’s Scripture readings.  First, the Disciples are complaining about someone else doing their job.  But remember that Jesus sent out 70 individuals to preach His message (Luke 10: 1 – 2) and this individual very well may have been part of that group.  But the Disciples are acting as if they are the only ones who have the authority to do that preaching.  Even today, we have disagreements across and within denominations as to who has the authority to deliver God’s word.

And that brings up the second interesting point.  The Book of Esther is the only book in the Canon (and one of two in all the books of Scripture) where God is never mentioned.

While the primary reason for the inclusion of Esther in the Old Testament is to explain the Jewish festival of Purim, it also serves as a reminder that we don’t have to mention God to know of His Presence in our lives.  And His presence is not limited to just a few but for all, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, or social status.  The Book of Esther also reminds us that those who seek to repress or persecute any group will pay the ultimate price.

We do not need to be someone special to know that wherever we may be, God is with us.  Because God is with us no matter where we may be, we are able to offer support through our prayers and actions to those in pain, who suffer from injustice or persecution.

Where is your God?  He is where He is, right next to you and in you.  When people see you, hear you and watch you, will they see God?

~~Tony Mitchell

“Who Gets Invited?”

Here is the “back page” for the 15 October 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost, year A) bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Our services start at 10 and you are always welcome to come and be a part of the worship.

How many of you remember Steve Allen?  If I were to describe this talented individual in one word, I would say that he was creative.  Whether it was in the arts, the theater, or music, Steve Allen found new and creative ways to express his thoughts.  And one of those ways was through a television series he prepared for PBS, entitled “Meeting of the Minds”.  In this show, he brought together notable individuals of history (portrayed by actors) to meet and discuss ideas, common or otherwise (I first referenced this in “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?”)

My notes don’t give me all those who sat at his table but it would have been nice to have Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer there to discuss the nature of Christianity.

If you were given the opportunity, who would you invite to sit with you at your table and discuss topics of common interest?  And what would you do if any of the individuals you invited could not attend?  Who might you then invite?

Would St. Augustine be an acceptable substitute for Martin Luther?  Would you invite Attila the Hun, even if you knew he had bad table manners?

What if they didn’t let you know until the last minute?  Might there have been someone you overlooked because they were not famous?

Who might you invite to this metaphorical table if it meant that the course of history might change because you did.

We have chosen the path we will walk.  And who we walk with along the way tells us something about that path.  Who will you invite to walk with you today?

~~Tony Mitchell

“The Life You Lead”

Mediation for October 19, 2014, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Laity Sunday

Exodus 33: 13 – 23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10; Matthew 22: 15 – 22

I wrote some notes about these three passages a couple of months ago with the thought that I would be in the pulpit somewhere this Sunday. But in re-opening this file I noticed that what I wrote back then does not match what I am thinking today, which is often the nature and case.

I don’t know why this particular Sunday was picked to be Laity Sunday. I suspect that if one were to go back into the history of the denomination and examine old copies of The Discipline I think one might find a legal paragraph or two that mandates that lay speakers do one service a year in their own church.

I have a sense that such a rule/paragraph existed at one time and I know that it doesn’t exist today. In one sense, if it did exist, it would be a little impractical, especially in those churches with more than one active lay speaker. Of course, there really isn’t such a thing as a lay speaker anymore, having shifted to the title of lay servant and preaching or presenting the message is no longer the primary task of the lay servant.

But in one sense, having changed the focus from speaking to service makes every Sunday a Laity Sunday.

I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the nature of the sermon and whether it served primarily as a call to respond to Christ or to provide information to the assembled people or some other purpose. I hope that we concluded with the idea that a particular sermon serves a particular purpose based on the situation and needs of those in attendance. But it also served as a call for each member of the church, the laity, to respond in some way.

Now, hold onto that thought for a moment. I will come back to it shortly.

In addition to time being set aside to recognize the laity of the church, this is also the time that many churches begin their stewardship campaign. And unfortunately most of these campaigns are simply pleas for money to operate the church and its functions for another year (see “Creative Stewardship” and “What Does Stewardship Mean To Me?” as my response to that approach).

Stewardship has to be more than simply giving money for the operation of the church. When everything is expressed in terms of operating the church, then I fear that we have elevated the building to a status similar to a false idol. This is not to say that the building is not important but then again, how many successful churches today are operating outside the framework of a permanent structure?

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, again looking for a way to entrap him. This time, the issue is taxation, an extremely sore point with the religious establishment who could not stand that money taken by the Romans was money that could have been given to them. And Jesus replies that one gives to the government what should be given to the government and one gives to God what should be given to God.

Let’s not get into a discussion on the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of citizenship (of course, back then the Israelites were not necessarily considered Roman citizens). But too many people, I think, use Jesus’ thought of giving to the government and giving to God as an excuse to not give to God because they have to give so much to the government.

But that can only occur when God is not the priority in your life, when His presence is a slot of time on Sundays and sometimes during the week. In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses challenges God to make His presence known to the people so that they will know and understand the special relationship they have with Him.

I think the problem is that, while God is among us today, we are blind to His presence. We speak of the unique relationship that we have but we don’t acknowledge it. And if we do not acknowledge it, we can’t be aware of it.

I wrote a prayer a few years ago that hung in our feeding ministry’s kitchen. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of it on my hard drive. But I remember that one line I wrote acknowledged that Jesus Christ would be one of those who we feed that morning. How can we give to God what is God if we do not treat everyone as if he or she was a representative of Christ?

Second point, how can we see God if our lives are lived in such a way that it doesn’t reflect what we believe? When you read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians for today, note how he commends them for leading a life that shows the presence of Christ and what that means to others. Others see in the Thessalonians the way to live and the openness in which that live works.

And now I go back to the idea that every Sunday is Laity Sunday and that we, the laity, take with us at the end of the service is the knowledge that we serve Christ with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.

You cannot split your life into parts as far as Christ is concerned. You either live it fully in and with Christ or you do not. And if you do not live it fully in and with Christ, then you had best do what Jesus Himself first called upon the people to do, repent of your ways and begin anew.

You cannot expect people to accept you as a Christian if your life does not show the love of Christ. What was it that cause the people to notice the behavior of the Thessalonians if it was not a change in their life?

In response to such a challenge last week, I wrote that “generosity requires a change in thinking.” Anyone can be generous with their money but how many people are generous with their lives?

On this Sunday, we need to understand that it is not a recognition of what we have done but rather what we are going to do. It is a recognition that the life we lead is one that leads to Christ and helps others find Christ in a troubled and disturbed world. It is a life that does truly lead to peace and justice for all.

“A Matter of Integrity”

I was at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 1:1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16. Their services now start at 10 am with Sunday School at 9 and you are welcome to attend.

Ann told me that she thought this might be a bit more intellectual that some of my sermons, as if most of my sermons are not. But in this case, perhaps that is the case.

But when you are basing your message in part on one of the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs or Song of Solomon; the Apocrypha also contains the Book of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach), the message will be somewhat intellectual. Such messages are the most challenging to write for they demand one think it through to the end. That’s not to say that every message or sermon that is written does make the same demand but when you are using something from the wisdom literature, it requires a little bit more than usual. I hope and pray that I have that challenge and that when it is done, you will be challenged to seek more information for yourself as well.

I have always been amazed at how the topics that dominate the news are always matched by the Scriptures that have been designated for that particular week of the year. In this case, the Gospel reading from Mark deals with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the subject of divorce. And two weeks ago, there was an announcement that a fragment of papyrus had been discovered that suggested that Jesus had a wife. Of course, a week later, it was announced that this papyrus fragment was a forgery and not a very good one at that.

Now, why would someone want to make a forgery like this? What motive was there in doing so? Of course, from my point of view, I also had to wonder why it was such a poor forgery in the first place. There is, after all, a curiosity about the life of Jesus, in part because of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and its plot that Jesus not only had a wife but a child as well and that child’s descendants can be traced through the blood lines of European families. Now, The Da Vinci Code is clearly a work of fiction but because of the nature of the topic, there were a lot of people who believed that there was some degree of truth behind it. After all, there is the notion that every myth has some element of truth in it. And since we know so little about the life of Jesus between the time He was 12 and engaging the Pharisees, scribes, and scholars in the temple and when He was thirty and He embarked on His mission, it becomes quite easy to imagine just about anything we want. And someone looking to make a few extra dollars can quite easily do so by creating a story that fits within the framework of what we want to believe.

There will be some who hear or read these words and feel that I have just given them justification for not believing in Jesus as the Risen Savior. To many people today, Jesus Christ is a myth. But who concocted this myth? And why?

That we are here today means that there is a degree of truth to the story of Christ, even if there are gaps in the story. And that the story of Christ has been told over the years across all of the continents should suggest that there is an element of truth to the story as well.

So, how we react to the story that Jesus may have had a wife and whether we choose to believe or not is a measure of the integrity or strength of our faith. How well can we stand up to the pressure of being questioned about our faith? How strong is our faith in our day-to-day life?

The Old Testament reading for today tells us of the story of Job, a seemingly rich and powerful resident of Uz. Job is characterized as an upright and blameless man who feared God and avoided evil. But in the first chapter of Job, he loses everything he has – his children, his servants, his flocks – only his wife remained.

The sad part about this is that we know someone who has suffered such a loss; perhaps we have suffered such a loss ourselves. And how did our friends, how did we handle this? Did we curse God and question why He would allow this to occur? And if God did allow this to occur, what does that make Him? What sort of god (and notice that I used a lower case god) would allow one of his beings, someone that was created in his image, to suffer as Job did in Chapter 1.

It is critical that we understand that one of the things that occurred in this reading still occurs today. When something goes wrong, when we suffer, we often presume that we have done something wrong. Listen over the next few weeks to the friends of Job as they make that same assumption; that Job’s suffering is a consequence of his having done something terribly, terribly wrong. But Job always asks, “what is it that I have done so wrong as to warrant such punishment?”

Others will argue that they want no part of a God that would allow a believer to suffer like Job. They would argue that such suffering and the level of evil in this world are perpetrated or permitted to go unchecked because faithful adherents to religion accept the notion that it is “god’s will”.

But the patience of Job is neither a rejection of God nor blind acceptance of what is happening. Rather it is done with the notion that something will transpire that will bring sense to it all. Job will never curse God but He will demand that God show up to defend His actions. Job will do what his wife and friends will ask him to not do, “persevere in his integrity.”

Much has been made about divorce and marriage and what Jesus said and did not say. I think it important to note the differences between Mark’s recording of this encounter and Matthew’s recording. But what I think we need to understand is why the Pharisees questioned Jesus about this matter in the first place (and I don’t think it had to do with whether or not Jesus had a wife).

Keep in mind that John the Baptist was executed in part for his denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as a violation of Old Testament law. There is commentary by the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod was also afraid of the growing political and religious movement John was leading and his arrest and execution, for whatever reason, was an attempt to put an end to that movement.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs in part of the territory controlled by Herod. We know that the Pharisees were beginning to see Jesus as a threat much in the same manner as John the Baptist and they, the Pharisees, probably felt that if they could get Jesus to make some sort of pronouncement similar to John’s, the same results would occur.

For me, the Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the faith though it was more that they were keepers of the religion. Religion may be seen as how we reach out to God; faith is God reaching out to us. At times, the two will be in direct opposition to each other. Religion is the interposition of our thoughts onto God, making God what we want Him to be, not what He is. Faith is that which may be termed spiritual and is separate from religion.

I would rather not have such distinctions but unfortunately I have meet too many people for whom their religion is their faith. They are not interested in what one believes as much as they are in maintaining what is currently there. The Old Testament prophets sought to deliver the people from an idolatrous trust in their own religion with its shrines, both mental and physical so that they could be delivered into faith with its trust in the living free God who comes to us in the moving events of history.

How we see God says a lot about the integrity of our faith. If we see God as being on the edges of our lives, there when things go wrong, then I would make the argument that our faith is weak; its integrity low. For me, the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat because He challenged their faith and they were unable to respond.

For me, there are too many people today who have such an attitude. Jesus has a place in their lives but it is only on Sunday mornings, between 8 am and 12 noon. When they leave church on Sunday, they quietly but quickly put God on the shelf in the closet where He can’t be hurt and they go about their business for the rest of the week. Such a faith cannot stand to be questioned and such individuals will not allow such questioning to take place.

But if you see God as part of the day-to-day occurrences of life, as One who comes at points of confidence and strength as well as points of weakness and uncertainty, then the integrity of your faith cannot be questioned. And if it is questioned, you can answer with both word and action and you see the opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to those who seek Him.

Ask yourself this, how do I see Jesus today? On his blog, “Irreverend Mike” wrote,

The issue is this – we tend to treat Jesus like he’s a fact to believe rather than a person in whom we place all our faith. This is what Christianity is about. It’s not a truth we believe in like we believe that 2+2=4, or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It is about Jesus, who is the truth, who tells us “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Being a Christian means having a relationship with this Jesus – following his way so that we may truly live with God.

When we forget this – and Jesus becomes to us just another thing that we can think and say is true – then we do not truly know Jesus. Not only this – but when Jesus becomes a thing to us in our minds, we begin to shape him into something he is not. We create an “imaginary Jesus”.

Your imaginary Jesus tends to think like you, agree with you and never challenges you. And this imaginary Jesus is nice! He gives you the assurance of eternal life and unconditional love – and you really don’t have to do anything. It’s a good deal. That is – if this was the real Jesus. Which it is not.

The real Jesus isn’t like us. He is perfect and holy and filled with so much love – that we can’t handle it. The real Jesus isn’t content to leave you where you are in your sin, brokenness and failings. The real Jesus beckons you to follow him to do hard things and love people you don’t want to love. The real Jesus asks you for nothing less than your whole life, because after all – he gave his for you. (from http://irreverendmike.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/will-the-real-jesus-please-stand-up/

There comes a point when one must make a choice. We are reminded in the reading from Hebrews exactly why it was that Jesus began His mission in the Galilee and why He comes to this place and time today. Our salvation is found through Christ; His death on the Cross was so that we would be set free from sin and death. And having been set free from sin and death, we have the opportunity to find a new path in life and help others seek what we have found.

I find myself drawn more and more to the thoughts and words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the 30s he was living in America and had the opportunity to stay in America when Hitler came to power. But to do so would have been too easy and he returned to Germany because he saw a church, his church, turning a blind eye to the horrors that engulfed his country. He began to feel that to religion was becoming separate from the world and that, in its silence, let the horrors of the Nazism grow and fester. A pacifist, Bonhoeffer would ultimately join the underground resistance against Hitler and lose his life just days before the concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner was liberated.

I have never understood, until perhaps today, why he would do that. But he thought that if one was to be truly Christian, there had to be a reliance on the Grace of Christ because it was only through that Grace that we could be free from self-concern and doubt and be freed to show a truly worldly concern for others. Being a Christian was, in Bonhoeffer’s thought, not merely an acceptance but an act of being in the world. It was more than what one did on Sunday but what one did throughout the week.

We are never asked to make a sacrifice such as the one Bonhoeffer made or even the one that Christ made. We are asked only to let Jesus into our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Are we prepared to open up and let Jesus into our lives, not just on Sunday mornings but all day Sunday and then through out the week? Or will you be like the disciples who, despite what Jesus taught them, still tried to deny the children access to Jesus? We are all children of God and Jesus said to let the children come to Him.

But how many times has someone told another child of God that they could not come into the church because they were somehow different. Perhaps they were too loud, as a two-year-old might be; perhaps they were unclean, as Job became. And as Job became unclean, his friends deserted him.

I have not neglected the reading from Hebrews that comes with the passages from Job and Mark. It concludes by noting that Jesus Himself trusted in God and that He was and is with us, the children of God. And if He is with us, how can we deny others that same right?

I begin by suggesting that our faith is being questioned, in part by the “discovery” of the “Jesus’ wife papyrus fragment”, and how we might answer that. There was a time long ago when I felt that my faith was being challenged. I was enduring a series of setbacks and I could only conclude that perhaps I was a pawn in some game being played by individuals or beings outside the realm of my consciousness. I didn’t care that I was a pawn; I just wanted to know what the rules of the game were.

Amidst all of this, I obtained a book entitled The Passover Plot in which the author hypothesized that Jesus faked His death on the Cross. After reading it, I could only conclude that if someone was willing to undergo what has been acknowledged as the most gruesome form of torture ever devised by man, then there must be something to what He believed. Over the years I have come to see Christ in my life in ways that are not always easy to describe. But I have come to think that because others have believed and that belief has remained strong over the years then what I know in my heart is true. And if what is in my heart is true, then I am obligated to help others know that as well.

Perhaps this is not the best way to think about the integrity of one’s faith but consider this. I cannot say I am a Christian if I do not believe it in my heart and live it with my words. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say to you that you must believe as I do. I cannot say that I am a Christian because I go to church on Sunday but ignore the hungry, the homeless, the needy, or the oppressed. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say that I am saved but do little to help you find your salvation.

If there is to be any integrity in what we believe, what we say, and what we do, it has to begin with us accepting Jesus’ invitation to let the children come to Him. In this case the invitation is to each one of us to allow Jesus into our hearts. And then, after we have let Jesus into our hearts, our souls, and our minds, then we must go out into the world, not just telling people about Jesus but showing them how Jesus changes lives and offers hope. The integrity of our souls is at stake if we do otherwise.

“Who Can I Turn To?”

This is the the message I gave at Alexander Chapel UMC (Brighton, TN) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), 28 September 1997. The Scriptures were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20 – 22,; James 5: 13 – 20, and Mark 9: 38 – 50.  (Edited to reflect proper liturgical date.)

Every day when I log into one the computers at work, I get a message telling me how many days are left until the year 2000. Now, I am not sure if this is just a programmer having fun or if it is a subtle reminder to the programmers of how many days they have left to fix the year 2000 problem.

The year 2000 represents a major problem to “big” computer users because, in early computer design, years were based on 2 digits, i.e., ’97, ’98, ’99, rather than 4 digits, i.e., 1997, 1998, and 1999. When the time comes, computers using the 2-digit program will think it is 1900 rather than 2000. And this will cause a great deal of trouble for companies who have not done anything.

The year 2000, or perhaps more appropriately the next millennium, also represents a challenge for many people who do not use computers but rather see the time as the Second Coming of Christ. When the year 999 turned to 1000, there were many people who felt that it was time prophesied in the Book of Revelations and prepared accordingly. There have been commentaries that the same thing will occur with the coming millennium.

Now, Christ told us that we would never know the exact time of his coming and that we should always be prepared for that time. So the changing of a calendar date should not be considered anything extraordinary. Still, it is interesting to note that every time there is a big event in world history, be it the new millennium or a war or famine, people have felt that it was the time of the second coming and have acted accordingly.

For us, this is a time to consider the place of the church in today’s society. For it was during a similar period in history, when all the events suggested that the end was near, that John Wesley started the Methodist Revival. But when the world around you is falling apart, especially when everyone else seems to be succeeding, what can you do? Who can you turn to?

When I read today’s scriptures, I got a sense of community, of the church’s place in society. Throughout his entire letter, James was speaking to the community, encouraging them to work together, to help each other.

The Old Testament reading for today comes from Esther. Esther was part of the Jewish community in Babylon during the Jewish exile but was married to the Babylonian king. At the time of the reading, a plot was being developed to kill all the Jews in Babylon, as one commentary suggests, as part of annual celebration which required a sacrifice to one of the Babylonian gods.

But when the king asked his wife, Esther, if there was anything she desired, she took the opportunity to ask for the freedom of her people, the captive Jews. Thus the plot to kill the Jews was stopped and the chief plotter was killed instead. The closing portion of the Old Testament reading spoke of what the community, having been saved, did in celebration.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

Contrast that to the actions of the disciples upon hearing that someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They were apparently in an angry mood because someone was doing something they felt that they only had the right to do. But Jesus told them not to complain when someone else did work in His name because such work was good. And as he noted in verse 39, having done good made it impossible for that person to speak ill of Jesus later.

For whatever reason, the disciples viewed their community as the twelve disciples and Jesus, yet Jesus knew that the community was much larger. As Jesus told his disciples, if someone was for the group, they could not be against the group. In verses 42 – 48 of the Gospel reading for today

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you stumble, cut it off; it is better for you toe enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;’ it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fires is never quenched.

Jesus told us what would happen if we ignored the community around us. John Wesley saw a community downtrodden and forgotten, not only by the government but by the church as well. To him, action by the church was needed and it was by his actions, in starting that the Methodist revival that conditions improved.

“What can we do?” you ask. At this point, I remember a prayer that has the line “my ship is so small and the sea is so big.” But James told his community to consider prayer, and not just a simple request but rather prayers done in faith. The person that the disciples were upset about healed through his faith in Jesus. If he had healed through deceit or trickery, then the person who was sick would have not been healed, nor would Jesus have been as understanding.

Prayer is our means of communicating with God.

Norman Harrison in “His in a Life of Prayer” tells how Charles Inglis, while making the voyage to America a number of years ago, learned from the devout and godly captain of an experience which he had had but recently with George Miller of Bristol. It seems that they had encountered a very dense fog. Because of it the captain had remained on the bridge continuously for twenty-four hours, when Mr. Miller came to him and said, “Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.” When informed that it was impossible, he replied: “Very well, if the ship cannot take me, God will find some other way. I have never broken an engagement for fifty-seven years. Let us go down into the chartroom and pray.”

The captain continues the story thus: “I looked at that man of God and thought to myself, ‘What lunatic asylum could that man have come from. I never heard such a thing as this. ‘Mr. Miller,’ I said, ‘do you know how dense this fog is?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, who controls every circumstance of my life.’ He knelt down and prayed one those simple prayers, and when he had finished I was going to pray’ but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. ‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘because you do not believe God will, and secondly, I believe God has, there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.’ I looked at him, and George Miller said, ‘Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up and open the door, and you will find that the fog has gone.’ I got up and the fog was indeed gone. George Miller was in Quebec Saturday afternoon for his engagement.” “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” by Glenn Clark

Who can we turn to? When you pray, whether it be in your private daily devotions or as part of the church prayer each Sunday, from where do the prayers come? When we turn to God, when our prayers come from faith with our eyes turned to the Living God, then we know that our prayers will be answered.

Who Shall Feed My Sheep?

Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 October 2011. The Scriptures this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 -22. . It is also Laity Sunday and I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. 

I have edited this since it was first posted. As I was preparing a report, I noticed that I had this piece listed as the 18th Sunday after Pentecost when it was actually the 19th Sunday.

Yes, I know the title of my message is more attuned to what transpires in the Gospel of John following the resurrection (John 21: 1 – 19) than any of the readings for today. But in one sense, what Jesus asks Peter to do in that passage very specifically relates to what this day, Laity Sunday, is and should be about. So bear with me as we look at the three readings for today.

Let us first begin by remembering what this part of the country looked like some two hundred and sixty years ago. Route 9 from New York northward was, if I am not mistaken, first called the Albany Post Road and so it would have been the major land route north out of New York City. I would suspect that Route 22 would have been here, though obviously not paved. It would have been a well-worn path coming up from New York City. And when you look at the churches between Cold Spring and Carmel along NY Route 301, you know that there had to be a path there as well.

Those who had come to the shores of this country came seeking a new life, hoping that their future here held more promise than their lives in the old world ever would. Perhaps they came escaping an unpleasant past and/or present and just wanted the chance to start over. Others perhaps just wanted to start anew and fresh. Settlers to this part of New York would have followed these early land routes as well as sailing up the Hudson to find a place to live and begin their new life in this wondrous new world.

But starting over and beginning anew is more than coming to a new country and building a home. No matter how you want to romanticize it, it was and still is hard work.

Those who came to this new world knew that there was nothing here; nothing, at least, in terms of what they left behind in the old country. There were no towns; there were no schools; there were no churches. All that was once part of their life was left behind in the search for a new life in the new world.

And within the framework of each individual is a desire to know more about the world around them and there is a desire to understand and know that God is a part of one’s life.

So this new life required that you find a place to build a home and as people came you began to build a town, a school, and a church (especially when you came to this country to escape religious persecution in the old country). You built the school for the future of your community, though I sometimes think that we have forgotten that. And in many towns, especially in the mid-west, you know that the town is dying when the school closes or consolidates with another school.

Churches were and are an integral part of any town’s community. It is about having a place where one’s soul can be refreshed; it was about having a place where their souls could be feed. You built a church to give one’s soul a chance to recharge (and I will say that I know we have forgotten that). There is a great sadness in many communities across this country, not necessarily in the rural areas, when a church has to close its doors.

In those early days of this country, it wasn’t just a matter of building the schools or the churches; it was also finding the teachers and the preachers. When you look at the history of higher education, you see that the first colleges and universities were directed towards the training of ministers (which might surprise many of the alumni of those institutions). But those who were in school were not going to be in the pulpit for some time and the people were, if you will, very hungry.

It was a hunger that John Wesley understood and one he struggled to fill. His problem was that the Church of England was not willing to send ministers from England to lead the congregations that had aligned themselves with Wesley’s Methodist Revival. And Wesley was reluctant to appoint/ordain anyone. Ultimately, John Wesley will appoint individuals to lead the new Methodist congregations in this country. But, “The rise of American Methodism is largely the story of self-motivated laypeople whose experience of God’s redeeming grace compelled them to preach and organize societies, which later were linked together to form the earliest connection…” (From “That Dear Man of God:” Edward Evans and the Origins of American Methodism as quoted on http://www.methodist-motion.org/id43.html)

From the laity came the first circuit riders, those individuals (not always men) who traveled from location to location bringing the Word to the people. When one looks at the churches in this region of the Hudson Valley where we live, we see the sites and locations where they visited and preached.

But it does not matter whether we are talking about America in the early 18th century or America in the present time. People still feel the need to feed the hunger in the soul; they still need a place where they may find rest and comfort from their labors. And perhaps more so today than 250 years ago, they need to know that there is a reason for what is happening in this world. In a world of anger, hatred, violence, and war, they need to hear that there is an answer and it is not the answer of more anger, more hatred, more violence or more war.

The people know that the answer to this hunger, the place where they can find the answers, the place they can find rest and comfort is the church. But it is hard to find the answers at times when the world demands we pay more homage to Caesar than we do God.

We have become a society in which the weekend has become an extension of the workweek and we fail to realize that our soul needs rest as much as our body does. The Biblical notion of a day of rest every six days has somehow become the idea that everything not done during the previous six days must be done on the seventh.

And the church is as guilty of this as any other societal institution. Instead of being the place where we can find rest and comfort, it is another societal institution demanding our time and energy. We have forgotten what the church is and was about.

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser.

Most of those words were written this past Wednesday afternoon. That evening, I received Dan Dick’s post. Hear what Reverend Dick wrote about the United Methodist Church in general,

As I prepare for General Conference I am reminded again that there are two churches in today’s United Methodism: one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world. One is concerned with numbers; the other is concerned with lives. One is concerned with image; the other is concerned with integrity. One is concerned with power and control, the other with justice and service. We stand at a crossroads. We need to make a choice. Will we sell out to a lesser vision of church as social institution or will we rise up to BE the body of Christ? It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.


There are many challenges facing the church, be it the church in general, a specific denomination or a specific church. The competition between Caesar and God will not be won by condemning Caesar nor will it be accomplished by making God the new Caesar. It will not be accomplished by marketing the church or finding ways to make the church seem like it is part of society.

There was another reason why I entitled the sermon what I did. There is a song by Jefferson Airplane entitled “Good Shepherd” which is based on the words that Jesus spoke to Peter in John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep


If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my life complete
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

I used that song as part of the basis for a sermon a couple of years ago (see “A Rock and Roll Revival”) and in preparing that sermon I found that the lyrics for a 60s rock and roll song came from an early 19th century Methodist preacher. More importantly, it was what Jorma Kaukonen, the lead singer for the Airplane on this song, said about singing passages from the Bible. For Kaukonen, such songs as this one have opened the door to the Scriptures for him.

And I truly believe that is what the church must do today in order to feed the sheep of the world. It must find avenues and doors in the world around us that will open the Scriptures to the people who have that hunger that only the church can feed.

We cannot feed the sheep with platitudes and good wishes nor will they eat when all they receive from the church is rejection and hostility. Right now, I fear that too many churches have taken the attitude that the world outside the church should be left behind, never to be seen again. But what will you do when people find God in the world of rock and roll songs? When Jesus told his questioners to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and render unto God that which was God’s, he was telling them to put things in perspective and priority. God does come first, no matter how or where you find Him.

The question is a simple one, “who will feed my sheep?” Our task is to feed the sheep wherever they may be. The people did not come to the circuit rider; the circuit rider came to the people. So who shall we call upon?

Moses asked God who was going to lead the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land and God said that he, Moses, would. Not some highly trained preacher or minister but a simple shepherd. Of course there were no highly trained preachers or ministers back then; there was just a group of people leaving a life of slavery and toil to return to the land of their ancestors, to return to a land of hope and promise. Moses would have Aaron, his brother, to help him but all the work would be done by the people.

When the Methodist Church began in this country two hundred and seventy some years ago, there were no trained preachers but there were committed lay people, willing to undergo the trials and tribulations of traveling town to town on nights when, as the old saying goes, the only thing out were Methodist circuit riders and crows.

Now, in the 21st century, when the people of the world cry out in anguish and pain because they sense that they have been forgotten and abandoned, when the bodies of the people and the souls of the people cry out in hunger, both sustenance for the body and sustenance for the soul, we hear Jesus again calling to us, “who will feed my sheep?”

On this Laity Sunday, there can only be one answer. Are you prepared this day to answer?

What I See

Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Lamentations 1: 1 – 6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.  Sorry for the delay


As you may know by now, I am an alumnus of Truman State University. But if you pressed me for specifics, I would point out that I really never attended Truman State University. Truman State University has only been in “existence” since 1995; before that, it was known as Northeast Missouri State University. But I only did graduate work at Northeast Missouri State University. I graduated in 1971 from Northeast Missouri State College, which was not the name of the school when I began my college studies. Over the years that I have been associated with Truman, its name has changed from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College to Northeast Missouri State College to Northeast Missouri State University and finally to Truman State University.

The changes in the name of Truman reflect not only its history but its mission. Founded in 1867, it was first known as First Missouri Normal School and Commercial College. It retained the designation as a Normal School until 1916 when it became Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. It became Truman State University when the mission of the school changed from teacher preparation to a more liberal arts direction.

I think that it was a good thing that these changes were made; I don’t know what people would say if I said I had graduated from a “normal” school and I am not entirely certain what it says about my degrees from the Universities of Missouri and Iowa.

But each name change in the 143 year history of the school reflects are change in the mission and purpose of the school, from a teacher’s training school to a liberal arts institution. Part of that change occurred in 1970 when Charles McClain was chosen as the President of the University. Now, many of the changes in the mission of the school and the resulting name changes occurred after I graduated so I cannot speak to those changes.

But the late 60s and early 70s were a time of immense change in this country. Long standing concepts about power and authority were being challenged. The changes that swept through this country at that time did not avoid Kirksville even if those who lived there may have wanted them to. In the spring of 1969, the Black Student Association organized a sit-in of the Administration Building (Baldwin Hall) in protest of the city of Kirksville’s housing policy and the college’s support for those policies rather than support the needs and desires of the students of the colleges. I participated in that sit-in as a supporter. Now, there are some who will tell you that this was a negative episode in the history of the school and the town but I saw it then and still see it today as part of the awakening of the college and of the college and the town becoming aware that there was a world outside the boundaries of northeast Missouri. I posted my own thoughts about this episode in the college’s history and my life in Side By Side.

I cannot speak as to what decisions were made that brought Dr. McClain to Kirksville in 1970 but I suspect that there were those who felt that a change was needed and it would have to come from outside the traditional sources. Dr. McClain’s predecessors as President tended to operate the office in what I would call a very autocratic and authoritarian, almost royal manner. There were to be no challenges to such power or any decisions that were made. This attitude, in part, lead to the Baldwin Hall sit-in.

But as Bob Dylan wrote “the times were a-changing”. And though I may not have known it at the time, my own personal encounter with Dr. McClain spoke of the things that were about to take place. For some reason, most likely the quality of the food in the dormitory cafeteria, I decided to invite Dr. McClain to be my guest for dinner one evening. So I went over to the administration building, went into his office and asked his secretary if he were available. He had a few moments free and I took the opportunity to invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dorm cafeteria that night. To my surprise, he accepted my invitation.

We met later that day and walked across campus to the dorm. I cannot recall what we talked about that night some forty years ago but it probably would have centered on college life. What I do remember is that, as we went through the serving line, everyone assumed that this man was my father.

It speaks to the times and the culture of the place that people (students, faculty, and staff) would think that way. It was a culture where the college president and upper level management very seldom ventured around campus and they most certainly did not eat in the dorm cafeteria with the students (they had their own private dining room). So it came as a shock to many when Dr. McClain ate dinner in the dorm with students that evening.

Did this little episode in the history of the school change anything? The dorm food really didn’t improve and I can’t speak to what happened after I graduated. But I would like to think it did or that it reflected the type of changes that were about to take place. I do know this; in 2009, when I posted a version of this story in a comment about the new presidential search taking place at Truman, I heard from Dr. McClain telling me that he remembered the invitation and the dinner. And what happened that night was a foretaste of things to come across this nation.

In the 80s there would be a flurry of articles and discussions about excellence in the workplace. One thing that came out of all of that discussion was the innovations came from the bottom up but were supported from the top down. Innovation could not take place unless those at the upper levels of management bought into the change and everyone in the organization was committed to the change. It does little good for a company, an organization, or an individual to say they are for change and then expect the change to occur without their full support or participation. Leaders cannot say that change will occur in their organization, whatever type of organization, and then maintain or continue what they have done in the past.

I wrote about the contradiction between the talk of change and the action of change back in 2006 with To Search for Excellence. The church is no exception. You cannot expect change to occur if it is driven from the top down and there is no support from the top. There is a discussion going on right now in response to a post by Dan Dick (“Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church”) that speaks to the conformity and complacency of the modern church, of the inability of the church, its leadership and its members to see beyond the walls of the church.

As many have pointed out in their comments to Dan Dick’s piece, we have been talking about the need to change the church for almost thirty years now. And all of the talk has been accompanied by a concern that we not rush the issue. But the people do not want the change; they are quite happy with what they have at the moment.

And until we realize that and then, having realized that, begin to make substantial changes in what happens, we are going to have in our churches the image that Jeremiah saw when he looked at Jerusalem at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. A once bustling and prosperous city is now empty because the people failed to heed the warnings given by countless prophets. Each prophet, including Jeremiah, pointed out that what the people were doing worked against rather than for the wishes of God. Each time an individual ignored another individual, an equal member of society in God’s eyes, was a strike against them.

But did not the prophets warn the people what was coming? How long will it take for the people today to heed the warnings given two thousand years ago? I see a church content in its life but afraid of what is outside the walls. I see a church that will not change, even when they hear the words of Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks us if the owner of a business or a farm would invite his or her workers to dinner. The story signals a change in a relationship between people that would come with God’s kingdom, a change that was not always welcomed then and not always welcomed today. We have too many people today who echo the thoughts of two thousand years ago; that there is a structure to society and you best know where your place in society is.

We live in a world where we easily speak of equality but we are very hesitant to bring about such equality. We are quite content to let our church structure reflect the nature of society rather than the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a church where the workers are not welcome and the management has no desire to mingle or sit with the workers. It is, if you will, a mirror of what our society is and has become.

I am looking at a church that seems bent on bringing about its own death. It sees the people leaving but blames them. I am looking at a church that demands that its pastors preach a “feel-good” gospel, one that doesn’t demand much from the listeners. And I am looking at a church structure which tells those pastors who dare to move forward that they will not have much of a future. It is almost as if the church in its entirety is afraid of what might happen if the words of the Gospel were acted out instead of just spoken real quickly.

I know there are others who see what I see and know that we can no longer wait. And they are willing to seek movement where movement may not seem possible at the time. There are those in leadership positions, not many for sure but some, who know that such movement needs to be done right now. They know that the words of the prophets are meaningless if they are not followed by action. And the actions of the people outside the church tell us that most people are not listening. The change that must take place must take place now; it cannot wait.

Paul also warned us some two thousand years ago. He warned us that the presentation of the message would never be easy; that we could expect trials and tribulation; we could expect to be hated for wanting to do what is required of us.

It will take a lot of work to effect this change. It will require that we be willing to stand up and speak the truth, even if the truth works against what the people believe. Other discussions have taken place across the Methoblogosphere that tell me many of those who call themselves Methodists do not have a clue as to what Methodism is about. And when you consider the recent Pew Form on Religion and Public Life survey on knowledge of Christianity (see “What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!”), then most of those who call themselves Christian don’t have a clue as to what Christianity is about.

There is a quote in Jeremiah that says that we are at a crossroads and we must make a choice as to which way to go. There are many today who are at the crossroad, trying to figure out which way to go. But I see a church at that same crossroad but closing its doors and refusing to help those who are lost and confused to find their way. Yes, it will be hard to make the changes that are necessary at this time. But that is because we have put them off for so long.

Still, I see many who are working for the change, who see the church as it once was, before Constantine and the imposition of a state church, working for all the people. What Jesus did more than anything else was show the people that God was open to all, no matter at what level of society they might be. It was a far cry from what the people saw in their lives and it was a far better vision.

Can we say the same thing today? Are we prepared to move in the direction that Jesus offered when He said to us to follow Him? Do we see that road?

“Saying Thank You”

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2001.  Because of how the church’s communion schedule was set up, this was also World Communion Sunday at Walker Valley.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; Luke 17: 11 – 19.


There were two comments that I wanted to make about this particular sermon and its scriptures. First, a number of years ago I made some notes about wondering if the Israelites ever said thank you. It wasn’t in conjunction with these scriptures but it was one of those events in the Bible where the Israelites had been given something by God but they never seemed to acknowledge that gift. That seemed to be the case with the Gospel reading for today. Ten lepers came to Christ asking that He healed them of one of the most devastating diseases of its time, yet only one, the Samaritan, returned to say thank you.

We might never know if the other nine were truly healed of the disease but we can assume that they were.

The other comment, especially in light of the nature of the Gospel reading, is to find a way to connect the Gospel reading to the other two readings. I have probably made note of the fact that many pastors typically picked one of the three scripture readings as the basis for their sermon and leave the other two. Since I never have taken any formal learning in sermon preparation, I started off trying to find the link between the three and to use that link in the sermon. Sometimes the link is easy to find; sometimes it is not.

For me, the link today between the three readings is faith and service. Jeremiah speaks of what the Israelites exiled in Babylon should do while there; Paul reminds Timothy about why he serves God; and Luke asks us to consider the consequence of our service.

The Israelites are in exile in Babylon when Jeremiah wrote this letter to them. He had gathered from some of those with whom he was in contact that other prophets were telling the exiles to hold to the faith, for they would soon return to Jerusalem. But Jeremiah, instead of speaking and writing about the future, speaks to the present.

The other prophets were telling the people to wait for the future, to wait for the return before getting on with their lives. There is a certain amount of agreement in that thought. After all, when you are thousands of miles from your home, you should focus on getting back. Nothing you do should deter you from that goal.

But apparently those offering that hope of the future forgot that you must live in the present in order to have the future. While we may want a better future, it is better sometimes to work for it rather than waiting for it to happen. That is what Jeremiah reminded the people of Israel. If they waited for the future to happen, then the future would be rather bleak. Now was the time to prepare for the future.

Faith is never constructed or built on dreams. Life with God is built on our understanding the circumstances in which we live. To have a future means that we must enact our faith in the present. Dreaming about what we could be will never get us to what we can do.

Neither can we see the future in terms of what we once were. Just as life can never be what we dream it to be, nor can it be what we were. For sometimes we confuse the future with the past and think of what we could be in terms of what we were.

Life is lived with an understanding that "I am." And it is through living now that we are able to live for the future. If we cannot relate to God in the present, it is not very likely that we will be able to do so tomorrow. If we do not serve God or love other persons where we are today, then it is unlikely that we will be able to do so tomorrow.

Paul reminds us that we cannot place limitations on the Gospel. Paul points out that even when the speaker is confined or limited in his or her ability, the Word is not. Some of the greatest messages Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote during the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s came when he was confined to the Birmingham jail. We know from history that every time governments have tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel, they have failed. But we must understand, and Paul reminds us, that it must be the Gospel message of peace and love. If we choose to trivialize the message by arguing over the nature of the words, then we are likely to fail.

We are, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not, all servants of God. It does not matter how we serve God but we must realize our actions speak to the nature of our servanthood. The other day I saw someone passing around some materials intended to describe what would happen to Afghanistan. Perhaps it was meant to be funny, but it described an infliction of pain and anguish on the Afghan people, not just the Taliban government that has chosen to abuse its power through its clear misinterpretation of the Koran. But the irony of this was that the person who was passing around these pictures wore a shirt saying "God Loves You." How can you preach a message of peace when your actions speak of war?

Some might say that it is well and good to speak of peace but I don’t have the ability or time to do so. Others might say that it is all well and good that you speaking of serving God in this world but the world does not want to hear of God’s peace. But when we allow the nature of the world to dictate the nature of God’s word, we fail. When we don’t allow God to be our primary force of life, then our dreams of the future get lost in our thoughts of the past.

The courage we have today comes from our confidence in tomorrow, in knowing that the promises of Christ are true. We are asked to serve in many ways. And the manner in which we serve speaks to our beliefs and our trust. We may see the world in the terms of what it once was and hope that it will again be that way. But it never will be that way.

When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was found of quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘You see things; and say "why?" But I dream of things that never were and say "why not?"  We must see the world in terms of faith, in terms of God’s promise to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Ten lepers came to Christ seeking a cure. But only one came back to say thank you. It was the faith of that individual that saved him. Nothing was ever said about the other nine but I think that they were also cured. But their lives were probably never quite complete; they never had an assurance that the disease would not return.

Faith is very much a circle. And from time to time we must come back to the beginning. As we prepare today for Holy Communion we must understand that we are both coming to the table to remember the promise given to us and to say thank you for all that has been given to us. It is by our faith that we are able to come to this table today; it is through our faith that we say thank you.

Can You?

This Sunday, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.


The common thought about the church today is that it is dying. But that is not necessarily the case. In many parts of the world, the church is doing quite well and it is growing beyond description. And even in the United States, there are churches which are growing and prospering, even in these economic down times.

But there are a great number of churches, because of where they are located, that should be growing and prospering but aren’t. And on the denominational level, the same is true. There are some denominations that are doing quite well and some, including the United Methodist Church, which are not doing well. Some will say that the reason for this is that the individual church and the church as an institution is getting old and old things die.

But the church is more than two thousand years old and it has survived famine and plaque, war and destruction, persecution and oppression. Why should it be dying now? It is dying, not because it is physically old but because it is mentally old.

Some twenty years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Herbert C. Brown. Dr. Brown won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 for his work with compounds known as organoboranes. These compounds are composed of hydrogen, carbon, and boron (which coincidentally are Dr. Brown’s initials, something he quite enjoyed telling people). The nature of these compounds opened an entire new set of pathways for the synthesis of other compounds and offer low cost methods for such syntheses.

When I met Dr. Brown in 1988, he had been retired from active teaching for ten years but he was still active in research, publishing over 100 manuscripts a year. Now, as a doctoral student still two years away from graduation, to hear someone speak of 100 publications a year while I was still trying to get my first publication, was absolutely awesome. But it illustrated quite easily that being old is merely a state of mind, not a quality of the calendar.

And I say that because some four years later, I meet another individual who was some ten years younger than Dr. Brown but who was, for all intents and purposes, academically dead. And if he was not dead, he was certainly on life support, counting the time until his teaching and academic career was over. This individual, to the best of my knowledge, had not published anything since obtaining tenure at the university where we both taught and he had no interest, as far as I could tell, in learning anything new (he did not know how to operate a VCR or turn on a computer and this was in 2000). His intransigence and unwillingness to learn was a block to the younger members of the department who sought to breathe life into the department. Now, some ten years later, that department has survived and is doing quite well. But at that time, I saw a situation where the mental age of the department threatened the life and vitality of the department and its members.

The same is true in the church today. You see too many people who are not willing to try new ideas and who yet bemoan the fact that the church is dying. But they are unwilling or, at least, very reluctant to change the nature of the church.

The individual local church today is too often seen as a decaying relic of yesterday. It uses words that, while they may have meant something many years ago, are meaningless in today’s society and culture. For those who grew up in the local church, the church today is in sharp contrast to what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And when those who grew up in the local church get a chance, they leave that church behind. Sometimes they find another church more attuned to their needs; often times, they just walk away from the church.

We are at a moment in time when everything that we believe, everything we have ever learned is being challenged. We are being told that to be an evangelical Christian is to be a conservative Christian. We are told that the only issues of importance for Christians are abortion and homosexuality.

But what do we do about the poor? What do we do about education or the environment? What do we do when the system that is in place ignores the little children of this country in favor of big business and greedy corporate interests? What do we do when other Christians tell the parents of gays and lesbians that their children’s sexuality is their fault, that they somehow have lived a sinful and wrongful life? How is it that we have allowed Christianity to become so judgmental when our own Savior never judged anyone? (From an interview with Tony Campolo posted on Beliefnet.com on 12 November 2004)

Now, these thoughts, while parallel to some of my own, are not mine. They belong to Tony Campolo, Baptist minister, sociology professor, and conservative evangelical Christian. But even with those credentials, he feels that the concept of evangelism has been hijacked by the political motives of the religious right. He feels that the Gospel message of reaching out to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed, has somehow been lost in the politics of the times.

What I find interesting are his thoughts on the churches of today. One reason he feels that mainline churches are in decline is because they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. Pentecostal and evangelical churches, the churches that are growing today, are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally.

Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it also has the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.

But where will they go? They are like Job in the Old Testament reading today. They know there is a God and they know that He is out there but they cannot find Him.

They cannot find Him in many of the local churches today. Instead, they find a church that has literally sold its soul to bring people in. They find a church that is in complete opposition to the words of today’s Gospel. Instead of a sacrifice, many churches today have adopted the mantra of today’s society that says materialism matters and it is what you have that counts. The rich young ruler in today’s Gospel reading would be gladly welcomed in many of today’s churches, for he would not have had to give up his wealth and his power in order to follow Jesus. In fact, he could have kept his wealth and power and he would have been told that Jesus will follow him. The message of many evangelists in many churches today is how God fits into your plans, not how you fit into His plans.

There is even a movement among conservatives and fundamentalists today to remove the liberal bias of the Bible and show how the Bible justifies a free-market economy (see “Editing the Bible”). But the free-market economy that these individuals want is completely counter to the words, concepts, and meaning of the Bible. I have used the example before but it is worth saying again.

Jim Wallis speaks of his experience as a seminary student with the Bible:

I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.

When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?" he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.

In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, "The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away." Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people" — that was gone, too. "Blessed are the poor," that was gone.

So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, "Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out." We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.

Today’s generation of new church goers are called the “seekers”. Many of them have heard the words of redemption and sacrifice that are the message of the Bible. They know the story of the rich young ruler and the call from Jesus to put everything aside in order to follow Him. But they also see those who today live lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They do not want to be a part of that church anymore.

They do not want to come to a church and find that the clock and calendar have been turned back some fifty or sixty years. They don’t really care that the church was chartered and a part of the local community since 1828. It doesn’t matter to them that the budget of the church is $320,000 nor that the church has had ten pastors and thirteen organists in the past 40 years.

They don’t want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that Sunday is for church and the rest of the week is for more important matters. They want to know that the words they hear, from the congregation as much as from the pastor, mean something. They would rather meet with their friends at a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble bookstore on Sunday mornings to discuss things that are important to them than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup after the service on Sunday.

The church they find may have “modern” music or alternative worship services; it may let the pastor dress casually so that they appear to be hip. But these churches have so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it can and should be. And no matter how modern the church may appear or act, it still holds to words and actions that speak of the glory days long ago. It does not matter how modern the church appears or sounds when the words of the congregation espouse exclusiveness, rejection and discrimination, not an openness or welcoming attitude.

What people are seeking today, what people actually need is the answer to such questions as “Do you know God; do you have a story?” They want to know that people actually know God personally and not just that they know a lot about God.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church "When has God seemed near to you?" There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. The word “Gospel” means good news and how can one keep from sharing the good news?

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ, our High Priest, is not out of touch with reality as so many churches are today. He has experienced everything that we have experienced (except for sin) and he is in a position to help us in these times, if we but walk up to him. Our challenge is two-fold.

First, we must open our hearts and our minds and once again welcome Christ into our lives. And second, we must ask ourselves some very tough questions.

Is the church, our church, closed, both in spirit and mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Or is the church, our church, open to all who seek Christ?

Is the church, our church, a rigid and inflexible relic of days long past that refuses to change and challenges any threats to its existence? Or is the church, our church, capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remain the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that was the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago?

And finally, can you, today from the very moment you walk out of this sanctuary, through your thoughts, your words, your deeds, offer a Vision of Christ for the world today? Can you tell your story to the first person you meet when you leave this place today? That’s the question; what is your answer?

Serving the Lord

This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.


Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the year when the work of the Laity is honored. The United Methodist Church is unique, I believe, in this celebration. Though other denominations use lay persons in their services, no other denomination puts a reliance on the laity like we do.

This is partially because of our history and the use of circuit riders to provide ordained leadership to the various churches strung along country roods. It fell to the laity of each local society or early church to provide the pastoral guidance as well as the secular leadership for the church between the visits of the circuit rider.

Today marks the twelfth anniversary of the first time I ever preached. Looking back, I can honestly say that I never anticipated that my service as a lay speaker would turn into what it has become. I still remember joking on that Sunday morning that my feelings of nervousness were such that I would make coffee nervous.

I took on the challenge of organizing Laity Sunday because it needed to be done. At the time that I came to that church, it was in decline, losing members, struggling with its finances, and just generally not doing very well. Laity Sunday at that church had been a day when the pastor took the day off. But it was not a vacation for the Lay Leader who, in that church, served as the liturgist. Laity Sunday simply meant that he, the Lay Leader, had to do the entire service rather than simply the parts before the offering.

So when I volunteered to do Laity Sunday back in 1991, I wanted all to participate. It was after all a celebration of the laity and not just one person. That year, I thought that it would be appropriate if I could get members of the congregation to do various parts of the service, from the greeting through the opening prayers and the various bible readings, leaving the last step (the message) for myself. It was a model that worked and I would hope that it continues at that church to this day.

In 1993, I sought to involve one of the other lay speakers in the church. It was a sign of the changes that were taking place in that church that others were becoming involved. I had two reasons for wanting someone else to present the message that Sunday,. Things for me were changing and I wanted to let the other speakers whom the church had sponsored and nurtured present their talents. I was also fearful that people there would think that I was hogging the spotlight, much in the manner that I disliked others in the church keeping a position when others were ready to serve.

But late on the Saturday afternoon before Laity Sunday, as I was relaxing and confident that I had achieved what I had sought out to do, I got a phone call from the scheduled speaker. He told me that he would not be able to present the message in church the next day and “Would I at the last moment do the message?” So it was that I also received my “baptism” in the role of the lay speaker who fills in at the last moment for an ailing pastor or lay speaker.

The other thing that I would note is that I have not forgotten this model of participation. I have not used that model at other churches simply because there hasn’t been a situation where it was a practical application. But I would like to use it, especially on a weekly basis where individuals serve as liturgists, reading the first scriptures and offering the opening prayers.

For me, being a lay speaker is an opportunity for service. At times, it has been the only thing that I could bring to the church. And as it came to be, the opportunities presented to me have been more than just simply filling in for a vacationing pastor, the traditional role of lay speakers in the Methodist Church.

In 1995, I was re-certified in Parsons’ District of the Kansas West Annual Conference. Shortly after my meeting with the District Council on Ministries, I received a call from the District Superintendent asking if I would provide the leadership for three churches in southeast Kansas. For five weeks, in an age of automobiles, computers, and television, I took on the role of an itinerant preacher moving between three churches on each Sunday. After that assignment I was given two more similar assignments as the District Superintendent sought a pastor for the charges. I came away with an appreciation for what those early Methodist ministers and circuit riders did.

In April of 1997, I met with Memphis District Superintendent to discuss my candidacy for the ministry. As our meeting concluded, he asked if I could stay a little longer and be part of another meeting he had scheduled. In that meeting, I became the fourth of four to join in a project to provide pastoral leadership to two rural churches just outside Memphis. Both met at the same time on Sunday and shared the same pastor; since he could not preach at both, he alternated Sundays between the two churches. This meant that every other Sunday one of the two had no church service; the Tennessee conference was getting ready to close or combine the churches because of the waste of resources. The four of us provided a solution that provided pastoral leadership to the two communities.

I moved to Kentucky in 1998 thinking that I would not find opportunities like I had in Kansas or Tennessee. But in October of 1998, the District Superintendent for that part of Kentucky called me and asked if I would help the church in Neon, much as I had done before. The pastor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to serve and the church needed someone to lead them.

And when the plans were being made for me to move here to New York in 1999, I simply let the District Superintendent for this area (a fine young preacher from western Missouri named Dennis Winkleblack) know that I would be available if there was the opportunity. And he let me know that he might just have a place for me. That brought me to Walker Valley, and of course, ultimately to here.

I mentioned all of this because it has been the hallmark of my lay speaking career. I have been called to service in ways that I could never explain nor understand. I have never conscientiously sought rewards for what I have done; in all honesty, I don’t know that I could ever be rewarded. And if I should start looking at this role that I have chosen in terms of glory or honor, I need only remember those circuit riders of the past. The Methodist Church’s first Bishop, Francis Asbury made it clear when he recruited those early pastors that it was not a glorious job and that the rewards on this earth were limited. Peter Cartwright became a member of the early Methodist Episcopal Church in 1801 and quickly became one of this church’s early circuit riders. In a life that spanned eighty-seven years, he served as a circuit rider for twenty and an elder for some fifty years. In his autobiography, he wrote,

A Methodist preacher… when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and Discipline, he started, and with a test that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way he went through storm of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial (tea and cream); too, with a hearty zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could get it. His text was always ready, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ (From The Heritage of American Methodism, Kentucky Annual Conference Edition)

For Peter Cartwright, being a circuit rider and enduring the trail through Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois in the early 19th century was more about service to God than rewards or power. It was a call from God to preach the word where no one had heard it or where people wanted to hear it.

But it was clearly not service that must have been going through the minds of James and John, the “sons of thunder”, who either by themselves or with the encouragement of their mother (as described in Matthew’s account) when they sought out Jesus. They wanted and sought positions of honor and glory in God’s kingdom. The one seated at the right hand of the king said without speaking that he or she was the second most powerful person in the kingdom; the person on the left was just below in rank, honor, and glory.

It is noted in both Mark’s account and Matthew’s that the other disciples were displeased with the actions of James and John. It could only be because they themselves were thinking of the same thing. They wanted to share in the earthly power that they believed awaited Jesus. Clearly, they were either not listening to Jesus or understanding what He was saying about His life ending in shame and not glory. None of the disciples could conceive that what Jesus was offering was offering something other than political or religious power. They saw His preaching through the scope of their own needs. (Adapted from “Sharing in the Glory”, from “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourner, September/October 2003.)

Society teaches us to see our role in life in terms of the power it offers and the power it brings. Power is where it is at and if you do not have power, you are not there. We see that in so many ways in society and that includes the Christian church. Especially in today’s Third World, people see the Christian Church in much the same way the early Christian Church saw the Roman Empire, imperialistic, domineering, and arrogant. Others want the church to have a role of power and domination, attempting to control lives instead of allowing lives to develop to the fullest. But Jesus pointed out that the Kingdom that he would bring forth was not a kingdom of this world and the rules that applied to this world would not necessarily apply to the New Kingdom of heaven. Power for power’s sake would not apply.

We have equated power with leadership and leadership with power. If we are not powerful, we cannot lead. If we do not lead, we cannot be powerful. Yet, Jesus said that those who would serve would be last, a complete reversal of what we seek in this world.

Let us put ourselves with our desires for power in the place of Job. Job is asking God many great questions about suffering and divine justice. But God chooses not to answer those questions. But He also humiliates nor condemns Job for his actions. Rather, he asks if Job has sufficient knowledge about the world. In doing so, God vindicates Job, a vindication that will be later affirmed. But this discourse also shows Job that his role is that of a servant and not that of a king.

God essentially has challenged Job to teach him; and since Job cannot, he should be aware of what the consequences are. Job must be willing to be the servant of God since he can never be God’s equal.

The consequences are the same for each of us; they have been the same since the time mankind sought to build the Tower of Babel. We have a responsibility to learn but our knowledge will never surpass that of God’s, we should not expect to be at that level. It does not mean that we should not learn more about this world but that our ability to match the knowledge of God can never be reached.

That is where it is critical that we understand the difference between leadership defined by power and leadership defined by servanthood. Those who seek power (such as James or John might have wanted) care nothing about the institution that they seek to lead. All they are interested in is their own well being. But those who seek to lead by servanthood empower those around them. As the writer of Hebrews points out, we do not need a priest to lead us as the Israelites needed Aaron. For we have Jesus. And in Jesus we are able to transcend the differences between power and powerlessness, leader and follower, agent and victim. Jesus had the power to heal, to transform and to influence others. But He also suffered at the hands of the state, organized religion, and even His closest friends and allies. Jesus had the ultimate power, yet He gave it away.

In this world where power has mostly negative connotations, should we seek it? Not if it takes us away from what we should be doing. Is it the task of the church to adjust to the world or to change it? If we seek to stand in the faithful line of those who would change the world, then we need to reclaim the positive potential of power as well as the gospel’s capacity to influence, to change lives, and to renew communities.

It will begin with us. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday is a reminder that is we who serve, without the rewards that society has taught to expect even when what we do is what we are supposed to do. How shall we serve? That should be the question we are asking. There should be no limit to the number of volunteers seeking to serve the Lord. But, because others have sought power through their service, the volunteers are limited.

“Who shall serve?” is now the question. And for this church it is an important question. At this point, we need a chair for the administrative council, someone to serve as lay member to the Annual Conference (a job that has more to it that was first thought, as recent events have shown), and if not a financial secretary, at least an assistant financial secretary. I hope we have the person to fill the three-year term on the board of trustees. But we could always use a couple more individuals just to give some depth to the board. I hope I have the nominations for the church treasurer’s position, the chair for stewardship and finance, and the PPRC chair. At last year’s Church Conference, we stated that we wanted more people involved. At this year’s conference, the question is whether more people will attend. If more people do not attend, then it is very difficult to get more people to serve. If more people do not serve, then we have to hope that the same individuals serve again. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like things will have changed.

Service is never just loving humanity or simply caring about the masses. Service proceeds slowly, one person at a time. And ultimately service is about community. Often, when we are engaged in charity, there is no real community. The poor remain segregated from those who dole out some goodness for a few brief moments and then return to their own comfortable lives. Service brings people together in one community. Service means that we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.,” and then work to make the reality of heaven here on earth.

Today is the day we recognize the work of the Laity in serving the church throughout the history of the church. It has been and will also be service for the Lord. As we look to the coming year, one must ask how you will serve the Lord?