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.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. This has been edited since it was first posted.


The last verse (“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17: 10) in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 17: 5 – 10) poses an interesting question. What are we as a church supposed to do?

Are we to be the moral conscience of society or its moral police? Are we to be the social conscience of society or its primary social agency? There is today, I believe, a crisis in the church. It is because we cannot answer those questions; it is because we, as a church, do not know what it is we are supposed to do.

The leading religious voices in America today claim to be Christian but I can no longer accept that notion. Jesus commanded us to consider the least of all the people yet so many of these quasi-Christians are more interested in their own power and position. How can you say you are a Christian when your values and your voice are not the same as those of Christ? How can you say you are a Christian when your goal is a kingdom on earth and you put politics before people?

We are told that a true Christian is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriages. Yet nothing is said about defending the power, healing the sick, building homes for the homeless, and freeing the oppressed. Why are two topics of abortion more important that the ones that Jesus expressed when He began His ministry?

It is one thing to speak out against abortion. Personally, I am opposed to abortion. But notice the word “personally”; it is not my right in any realm to impose my beliefs about this or any other item on others. It is not my right to revise the Bible in such a way that it makes one act wrong but sanctions other acts.

If one is opposed to abortion because it is a clear violation of the Sixth Commandment, then one had better be opposed to the death penalty. And one should also be opposed to war. There are those who hold to all three but the ones with the loudest voices, the ones who oppose abortion are quite willing to let states murder in our name and call it justice. They are quite willing to go to war and kill others because “our god is strong and your god is weak.” It makes no difference that many times their god is our god and we don’t understand that fundamental fact.

And if one is opposed to abortion then one should be working towards removing abortion as an option. This means offering other forms of birth-control and increasing sex education. These are topics that seem to be off-limits to the anti-abortion foes. In fact, it would seem as the entire topic of sexuality is off-limits in the world of the fundamentalist. Could it be that they fear what they do not know or understand? Could it be that what is unknown or to be feared is to be ignored or banned?

There are those who oppose same-sex marriages and construct Biblical justification for their opposition. Theirs is a church that only certain people can enter. Theirs is a church that only certain people can lead. And theirs is a church that would bar Jesus from entering and preaching in.

The same arguments that are used today in regards to sexuality and love were used when it came to slavery and our concept of humanity. It took almost two hundred years but we finally learned that the color of one’s skin does not change their humanity and that whatever color we might be, we are all the same. We are still learning about sexuality and we, as a church, are going to be in great danger if we continue a policy of sexual apartheid and then find out that sexuality is more genetic than choice. We walk a fine line when we try to explain God’s handiwork with only a limited amount of knowledge.

When all is said and done, it is quite clear that we have not even done what we should have done.

What are the sound teachings that Paul is speaking of in his letter to Timothy? (2 Timothy 1: 13) What did Timothy’s grandmother and mother teach him that Paul suggests still lives in him? Are they the values that are expressed in today’s culture?

The word Christian should describe people of extravagant grace and generosity; it should describe people associated with acts of courage, justice, and compassion but it is more often used to describe people who are close-minded, vindictive and judgmental. Studies show that nine out of every ten people identify themselves as Christians but only about four of the ten will say they have been to church lately. What American people know about the Bible and religion, both other religions and their own, is surprisingly limited. Eight of every ten Christians say that a person from another faith can be saved or go to heaven. Broken down, seven of every ten Christian evangelicals and nine of every ten Catholics say that is possible. But it is a major tenet in both evangelical and Catholic communities that there is no salvation outside the Christian faith (and in many cases, they will say there is no salvation outside their “brand” of Christian faith. While Americans may say they are Christian, they do not know what they are. And if they do not know what they are, they are incapable of deciding if what the leaders say is even remotely true. (Statistical information and other information from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)

It is easy then to see why people so easily accept what other Christian leaders, ministers, or spokesmen say. The public does not know what the truth is so when they are only given one view, they can only conclude they have been told the truth. It explains why so many people have turned away from the church; their understanding is in conflict with what they see and hear. There is a gap in the lives of many people and each day the gap grows bigger. And with each day that the gap grows bigger, people find it harder and harder to come to the church. Each day, it becomes easier and easier to see the church as a meaningless and archaic institution, out of touch with the modern world and incapable of working and living in it.

We read the Old Testament reading for today (Lamentations 1: 1 – 6) and we can understand the hurt and pain that the prophet must have felt. The people of Israel were scattered from Jerusalem and Jerusalem was empty. There was a sense of desolation and loneliness in what the prophet wrote and it is no wonder. Everything that one hoped for was gone.

So what are we to do? Some would say that there is nothing we can do. The signs that we see are signs that the End Times are near and that Armageddon is just a matter of time. As I noted in “The Future for the Methodist Church”, after one individual gave his reasons for leaving the ministry, someone added their own comment that his leaving was because he hadn’t been brought up in the ways or Word of the Lord. Of course, this reasoning ignored the fact that the student minister was studying the Word of the Lord and he had been doing the Work of the Lord. To give fatalism as the reason for the failure of the church to shepherd its own is limited reasoning at best. It says that there is no hope.

Unfortunately, such reasoning takes place because people have not studied the Word. They are quite willing to accept the pronouncement of others as the truth even when it is false teaching. Instead of studying the Bible on their own and coming to understand what is written in each chapter, they let others explain it to them. And when there are contradictions, they don’t know how to deal with them because they haven’t studied the Bible themselves.

What are we supposed to do? Having come to Christ ourselves, we have to go out into the world, taking the Word of God with us. We are to testify to the world as to what Christ means to us. But such testimony must be more than words and the words must be words of hope, not condemnation. Our testimony must be done through not only what we say but what we do.

Paul points out that it is not our works that count but rather what was given to us through Christ. Now some will say that we only have to say what Christ has done but it is meaningless to say for a representative of God to say that God loves you when the representative does not. It is meaningless to say that God offers the water of eternal life and ever sustaining bread when representatives of God won’t share his bread or water.

We are faced with a great challenge. It is to show the presence of God’s Word in this day and age. It is what we said we would; it is what we must do.