“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

“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.

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.

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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.

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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?

 


Ask Not What Your Church Can Do


This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.

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If one reads the commentary for the passage from Job that was read this morning one gets an entirely different perception of the situation Job is in. In verse 2, God asks who it is that would challenge His plan or design for the universe. God also challenges Job to teach Him. In doing so, God alerts Job to the consequences of his actions and complaints against God. The commentary notes that in making these challenges and complaints, Job seeks an equal footing with God and is making a claim to the throne of God.

But, as I see it, and it should be noted that this is only my view of what Job is about, and in connection with the readings from Hebrews and Mark, I don’t think that Job every intended to challenge God or did he ever seek equality with God. All Job was asking for was the chance to come before God and ask God what was going on.

Job felt that nothing he had done warranted such distress and turmoil as what he had gone through. Of course, it was of little help that all of his so-called friends and comforters, who knew Job to be an upright and righteous man, insisted that he must have done something wrong. In the conventional wisdom, remember, sin is a consequence of your action and when bad comes to you, it is because of some sin that you have done. But we know that all that has come to Job came as a result of a test. Satan was testing Job with every sort of evil short of his own death to see if Job would renounce God; something that Job would never do and, in fact, never did.

All Job wanted to was a chance to ask God why things were happening, and in doing so, he challenged the very notion of who God was and is today.

The God of Israelite at that time was seen as a large and omnipotent being, capable of great wrath and anger, someone whose immense power commanded great respect. But at times, this respect came from fear; if you challenged God, you paid a price. This lead to a God who could never approached. No Israelite would ever think of writing God’s name or even saying it; the term “Yahweh” is our attempt to make sense of the manner in which this was done. The power of God was so great that to see the face of God meant almost certain death. When God first came to Moses, it was in the form of the burning bush and God told Moses to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground.

When Jacob wrested with God at Peniel and won, he asked to know whom he was wrestling. In Genesis 32:30, Jacob called the place Peniel because “I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” The very experience of meeting God face to face also changed Jacob in a number of ways. First, as noted in verse 31, God touched Jacob on the hip and caused him to limp. He also changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which meant “for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Both of these changes would have a lasting impact on life of Jacob.

To see God face to face had a special meaning in the terms of the Old Testament. In Exodus 33: 10, it noted that that the people of Israel could not approach God in the manner that Moses did. Moses saw and spoke with the Lord as one would with a friend. During the exodus, the presence of God was seen as a pillar of cloud. The Israelites saw this pillar and recognized that it was the presence of God so they always stayed some distance away. Only Moses could come near the pillar, God’s Presence.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he commanded the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant to carry those stone tablets. God also created the priesthood in order to care for the Ark and to provide a link between God and the people.

It was the priest’s duty to serve the people. The reading from Hebrews talks about what it takes and means to be a priest. A high priest was someone called by God to represent the people before God and to represent God before the people. Since the priest represented God before the people, it was important God called him or her to this task. All through Jesus’ ministry, he constantly emphasized that service was the most important thing. To be a disciple of Jesus meant that you were going to be a servant.

In the Gospel reading for today, James and John come to Jesus, perhaps in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God and ask to be seated at the right hand and left hand of the throne. Verse 41 points out that the other ten disciples were not too happy about this request. And one could understand their displeasure when you know that the seat on the right hand of the king was the place of most prominent in the court and the seat on the left hand ranked just below that. Jesus found it necessary to remind them that such places of power and respect came with a great price.

The writer points out that it was God who called Jesus to be a high priest, not something that Jesus did voluntarily.

And so Jesus could fully represent us before God, he first had to experience everything that a person on earth goes through. Jesus had to know for Himself how difficult it is to obey God and how attractive the temptations of life can be. The author of Hebrews also points out that Jesus successfully carried out God’s plan. He endured the suffering and temptations so that He could truly function as our High Priest, understanding our weaknesses and frustrations, and interceding before God for us.

Jesus own obedience to God, the Father, led to Calvary and His own death on the cross. But by that singular sacrifice, Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sins and became our source of salvation. Now we know longer have to have someone do anything for us, prepare anything, or offer anything in our name as the priest of Israel did, provided of course that we have accepted Christ as our Savior. Because Christ died for us, because we allow Jesus to be our Savior we have a better relationship with God. And God no longer is someone to be feared but one whom we know truly loves us.

Now, if we were of any faith other than United Methodists, that would be the end of the sermon. But I am on page 11 of a 9-page sermon, so we have awhile to go.

It is very simple for us to realize that through Jesus that we can come to God; that we have a way to find God, just as Job did. But what about those who have not yet come to know Christ? How will they come to the same path of life, how will they be able to ask God the questions that faced them as they faced Job? If for no other reason than to answer those questions, that is what the church is for.

What is the church, be it United Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, or any other denomination supposed to do?

I think there is always some time in our lives where we are like Job, where we want to talk to God directly. There has been perhaps one time in your own life where being told that it is God’s will that was done just doesn’t wash and until we hear it from Himself directly, we are not going to accept any answer.

My sophomore year in college was one such time. Spring break was coming up, and while I would be going home to Memphis and I would celebrate Easter with my family, I felt the need to take communion at the church that I attended in college since that was where I was a member.

Reverend Fortel was more than a little surprised by this request but he agreed to it anyway. No other student had ever made such a request (in part, I think, because most of the students at Kirksville at that time could go home on weekends and worship at their home church). So he agreed to meet with me the day before the break. Instead of a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant. I don’t recall just how I felt when we read the prayer on page 30 of our current hymnal.

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.  (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 30)

I remember questioning the statement “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” because I felt that, as a Christian, our worth was such that we could sit at God’s table as his equal. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us? Reverend Fortel pointed out that because of sin we had lost our place at God’s table, but because of His grace, God has restored our position.

The important thing to realize is that I could not have had that conversation unless the church had been there. That school year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions.

But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus. Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security. First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed.

The challenge for us this day is the same. I noted with some interest a comment in Time magazine last week about an on-line church. It only seems logical that with the advent of new technology, someone would find a way to put a church on-line. Now it is one thing to put information about a church or resources for a church on-line but it is an entirely different thing to try and have a church that way. When you remove the human element, you take away that which is the very essence of a church, the people. As one of the songs that we sing points out, we are the church. Even with a strong one-to-relationship with Jesus in our hearts, it is still important that we, as well as other, have a place that we can go in times of strife.

A church is also a community of believers who share. Over the past few weeks, I have spoken about rebuilding the prayer chain. The present outline has sixteen people on it. Is your name one of them?

Last week and this week, we have placed an ad in the bulletin asking for a Sunday school teacher. We have a possible candidate for that most awesome of tasks. But one person is not enough; there needs to be at least two to give us some flexibility and allow for unforeseen circumstances.

There is a need to have a confirmation class for which I will take the primary responsibility. But I would like someone to be my assistant and I would like the students in the junior high and high school to help pick the materials that are needed for this most important class.

You will note in the bulletin that we are beginning planning for the Advent season. You have two ways to help. I will try to have the Advent materials p

John Kennedy spoke of service to the country at his inauguration in 1961. He spoke in terms of what people could do for their country. That phrase has, over the years since, become one of the most overused phrases in America and one has to be careful when using it. But I think that it is most important that we use it today. The church is here for you but it cannot do a lot without you.

I have always said that as Methodists the challenge is what we are to do after having coming to Christ. The challenge today for each us is to serve this church in such a way that the next time somebody comes looking for God, there will be someone around to help him or her find Him. That is what you can do.

 


Finding God


I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.

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A couple of weeks ago, I spoke in passing of my experience with one of the early mega-churches in this country.(1) I began attending that particular church because of its single adult program. Ultimately two aspects of that church drove me away from that church.

The first was the discomfort that I felt. I was unemployed and my clothes were not of the highest quality. It was never stated but you could sense the differences between my life and the other members of the Sunday School class. This was that period of time when the term “yuppie” first appeared. The others in the class were among the first of this group and I clearly was not. There were other signs in that church who you were in your life and where you lived in the town were more important that where you stood in the eyes of Christ. Church is not supposed to be about one’s lifestyle; but in that church and at that time, it clearly was. I am not sure that church has changed much in the intervening years.

The other thing that drove me from that church was its desire to compete with the other mega-church in town. It was a defining moment when the church elected to spend several million dollars on its television ministry. It was a decision driven by market share and was as far from the Gospel as anyone could imagine. The thoughts and actions of the church’s leadership focused more on the body of the church rather than the soul of the church. I left because I could not comprehend how a church could spend money on its image when there were people in the city that were homeless, sick, and in desperate need of some sign of hope. Like many of those who quit following Jesus because they did not like the message they were hearing, I left the church because I did not like the message it was presenting.

But unlike those who left Jesus because they didn’t like His message that said to leave everything behind and follow Him, I wanted very much to be a part of His message. This church was very much like the rich, young man in today’s Gospel reading (2), willing to listen to Christ but unwilling to give up his earthly possessions and follow Christ.

I was faced with a dilemma. Where could I go so that I could find God? Where could I go so that I would feel welcomed?

During this particular period of time, I was still a member of a United Methodist Church, even though I had not attended the one where my membership was held or any other United Methodist Church for some time. I had attended this particular church because of the programs that it offered, not because of its message or denomination (it was not a United Methodist church). I could see that perhaps I needed to look where the traditional message and programs were closer to my heart and not just select a church for the amenities that it could offer.

So, I started looking at the various United Methodist Churches in the area. I found myself at one of the “larger” churches in town. It was large in number but there was something about it that didn’t make it seem large (especially when you compared it to the coldness and aloofness of the mega-church that I had recently experienced). And one Sunday, when the pastor made the invitation for others to join the church, I wanted to go up there. But since it had been several years since I had transferred my membership from one church to another, I wasn’t sure I should do it right then. At the end of the service, I asked one of the ushers what I needed to do. Now, I had filled out a visitor’s card indicating that I was interested in joining and this particular usher was actually looking for me. I knew that I had found a place where I could find God and I joined that church the very next week.

But how many people are looking for a church today and feel like Job, lost in the wilderness and unable to find their way? How many people today are wandering in this modern wilderness asking the questions that Job is asking today (3) We call those who seek God today “seekers”. These “seekers” of today are very much like Job. Job’s questions of three thousand years ago are the questions that so many people are asking today.

They go through a daily routine but have come to a realization that the answer to what they seek cannot be answered in what they do or what they have acquired. Though Job is seeking to find God in order to ask why he has lost everything, today’s “seekers” are asking why everything they have gained is not sufficient to fill the void in their souls. Why is it that the accumulation of possessions, the busyness of their lives, or the work that they do is not enough to answer the questions of their lives. They speak of not having a sense of purpose in their lives, a narrative that gives meaning to their lives. And against the backdrop of society, they feel lost.

In a life wherever minute is filled with activity and people, these “seekers” feel lonely. In a society where “things” bring security, they feel insecure. No matter how hard they look for love, they still need an assurance that someone “out there” cares for them. They seek others so as not to be alone, but they still feel alone.

In a recent speech, Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) noted that when he worked as a community organizer, he came into contact with many Christians and a variety of churches. Yet, even though he understood what they were saying and he believed the same things that they believed, he still felt removed and detached from them. He was there but only in body. There was no spirit in his work with Christians. Slowly, he came to realize that what was missing, that sense of loneliness and lack of attachment in his life was that he had no outlet for his beliefs.

Without a firm commitment to a particular community of faith, he knew that he would always remain alone and apart. So, as his work with church progressed, he also sought a church that he could join. It wasn’t just that he wanted to join a church to be a member; he wanted to join a church in order to fulfill his own commitment to be a follower of Christ. It was a commitment to discover God and to finish the journey of seeking.(4)

But what kind of church will other seekers find? I found my church because of my own desire and because the members of the church were looking for me. Senator Obama found his church through the work that he was doing? How will others find their church?

Jesus told the parable of the sower in which the seeds ended up in the rocks, in the weeds, and in fertile soil. Each of these situations describes a church setting in today’s society.

There are churches that are like the rocks and the hard ground. They hold onto the traditions of the church and insist on following the law. Things must be done in a certain way or they will not be done at all. The law must be upheld so as to keep the church the way it has always been. It is the type of church where yesterday’s Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes would feel right at home. The message of this church is a hard message and its doors are often closed to many. Like the seeds of the sower that fell on the hard ground and died, the hardness of the people of this church will cause the church to die.

The second type of church is like the part of the ground where the weeds grow. The message of these churches is the message of society. Anything that comes in the name of God should affect me and influence the way that we think about Him. These churches present an image of God who is accommodating, a God who wants to be your buddy. (5) These churches promise everything for everyone. If you need something to do, they will find a way to offer it. If you want music, these churches offer Christian music. If you desire a coffeehouse, then they will build a Christian coffeehouse. They will have a Christian bookstore in which to buy anything you want to read.

But all of these activities are like the weeds in a garden plot; weeds take away the nutrients that should go to the plants of the garden and ultimately the plants that are meant to grow die out from starvation. This is the church that the rich, young man wanted to join; it was one that would have let him keep his wealth and power. But it is not the church that Jesus was describing.

The church that Jesus was describing; the one that results from the seeds landing in the good soil is one like the church the writer of Hebrews describes in today’s reading. (6) It is a church where the Gospel is alive and well; it is a church where the presence of God through the Holy Spirit is alive and active. The true children of God are those who carry with them the nature of God. If we are looking for God, we are looking for the essentials of life that we are supposed to show others.

This is hard to even think about, let alone accomplish. We would rather change the Good News than change our own lives. As Mark tells us in today’s Gospel, there will be persecution and opposition to the Gospel long after Jesus’ death. We are not always willing to give up everything with the promise that what we give up will be returned. That is why the rich, young man turned away. It is the question expressed by Peter in today’s reading. He is saying that all of the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus; how will they know that everything will be returned? But Jesus also assured Peter that following Him was better than whatever option Peter might have come up with.

Of course, the answer then is that they don’t know; they follow in faith. But Paul will write to the Corinthians and point out that Peter, the other apostles, and Jesus’ own family still had everything they had left behind twenty-five years later. (7)

Seekers want a place where their questions have real answers, not answers defined by society’s values. They seek a church where God lives and is present in the lives and actions of the church members. Such a church must be able to answer these questions, not through tradition or adherence to the law or various social activities and community activities, but rather through how they act, how they let the Holy Spirit move in their lives.

Let us remember that when John Wesley started his reformation of the church, he was like the church of the hard rocks. He saw a church in terms of strict adherence to a way of life (why do you think we are called “Methodists?). But the hardness of that life failed to bring about what he and the other members of the early Methodist group sought, peace in God.

Only when Wesley opened his heart and allowed the Holy Spirit to warm his heart did the vitality of the Methodist revival occur. That is what will be the defining moment of any church in today’s society. Are they willing to open up the hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit?

Those who seek Christ must be willing to truly seek Him. To resolve the crisis in his life, Job went seeking God. We know that our search is easier because we have Christ to help us. This is the word of encouragement that the writer of Hebrews gives us today. We have in Christ the One who understands who we are. Christ has been tested so we need not be. But we must approach the Throne of God; we cannot expect God to come to us. Those seeking God must take the risk that the rich, young man was not willing to take.

The same is true for the churches of today; they must be willing to take the risk that comes when you choose to follow Christ. It wasn’t so much that I sought to join that one church because it enabled me to answer some questions in my life; it was because that church was looking for me and was willing to help me find the answers. Churches today must be willing to invite others in, not keep them away. Churches today must be willing to take risks; they must be willing to live their lives as Christ lived His.

There are risks involved. The risk comes when one chooses to follow Christ; the risk comes when one chooses to put aside priorities defined by society and self and simply follow Christ. The risk comes when one opens their heart and allows the Holy Spirit to transform their lives. For churches, it is a risk to say that they will go against the ways of society and instead of offering society’s answer, will offer Christ through their lives.

Finding God can be difficult, especially if you don’t know where to look. Finding God can be risky when you are asked to change the way you see the world and yourself. But when you do take the risk, when you do put Christ into your life and you find that God has been there right by your side, you find that you have gained all those things that you thought you would never have.

(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/09/24/upsetting-the-apple-cart/, 24 September 2006 (Dover Plains, NY)

(2) Mark 10: 17 – 31

(3) Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17

(4) Adapted from “One Nation. . . Under God?” by Senator Barack Obama, Sojourners, November, 2006

(5) Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner

(6) Hebrews 4: 12 – 16

(7)See the reference in 1 Corinthians 9: 5