“Finding My Faith (and keeping Mariano’s)

This is the message that Wanda Kosinski presented at the Goshen (NY) United Methodist Church on September 14, 2014 (14th Sunday after Pentecost (A)). Sunday services are at 10:30 am and you are invited to attend.

Please join with me in prayer … Dear God, may the words I prepared to share with everyone here this morning be found pleasing to you. And if it is a different message you wish your people to hear from the one that I plan to deliver then I would ask the Holy Spirit to help me find the words that you wish to be shared with those gathered here this morning.

Good morning! Some of you may already know that back in June I was supposed to deliver a sermon but then a case of laryngitis made that impossible. I do appreciate Cheryl filling in so wonderfully for me that day.

And here today, I’m given another opportunity but the words I prepared previously did not seem to quite convey the message for today so while I plan to share with you a portion of that other sermon – my inspiration for today’s message came from a different source.

I spent a good deal of this past summer on a personal spiritual journey of sorts. I decided to do this because I came to realize that more and more I was feeling sort of distant or lost (for lack of a better word) from God and especially the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, I decided that with Sunday school ending it was a good time for me to take a time out and re-evaluate my faith and my beliefs and try to re-energize or what I like to refer to as finding my faith focus.

I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and other Christian books and in silent prayer. I also took the opportunity to attend Sunday worship in a few places other than a Methodist church. And on several Sundays, I skipped attending a formal worship service altogether and simply took a long walk outdoors in nature to serve as my worship time for the day.

On more than one occasion I’ve found it challenging to find a topic for a message or sermon from the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday. And I know that when that happens it is perfectly fine to use another source for inspiration.

But finally after reading and re-reading the lectionary verses for this Sunday, the first few lines of this morning’s reading from Romans became a starting point for preparing today’s message. Initially, I used the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible for reading this verse:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, (my first faith encounter) but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.”

I then decided to use the Bible Gateway web site to do a bit of research and look up the same verse but using 3 other Bible translations and this is what I found:

First, from the Easy-to-Read Version of the Bible:

Be willing to accept those who still have doubts about what believers can do. And don’t argue with them about their different ideas.”

Second, from the Living Bible:

Give a warm welcome to any [person] who wants to join you, even though [that person’s] faith is weak. Don’t criticize her for having different ideas from yours about what is right and wrong.

And third, from the Common English Bible:

Welcome the person who is weak in faith – but not in order to argue about differences of opinion.

After the opening sentence or two of the verse from Romans, each of the Bible versions proceeds with an example of the difference in how some people eat meat and others only eat vegetables. Of course, this is just one of many differences among people.

On a whim, I attempted to correlate the food eating difference to the difference in levels of faith at different times in one’s life and how circumstances and events might effect and change one’s level of faith.

Perhaps when faith is high – meats are on the menu and when faith take a dip, then only veggies are in order. Of course, I don’t mean for this correlation to be taken seriously and hope the Bible scholars in the house won’t call me on this (smile).

With that thought, I was reminded of an interview that I’d heard on National Public Radio while driving home from work one day a few months ago – what I’ll refer to here as my second faith encounter. Mariano Rivera was being interviewed by Robert Siegel on the program All Things Considered about the book he wrote entitled “The Closer.”

As I’m sure many of you already know Mariano Rivera was the famous closer with the NY Yankees until his recent retirement. What not everyone might know is that Rivera is a devout Christian and a very religious person. At one point, he was asked about something he wrote in his book concerning the hand of God being in everyday life, even in baseball.

Rivera answered: Well, it’s my belief. You know, it’s all about faith, not only in baseball, but just normal life. My faith in the Lord is everything.

He went on to explain how his faith made it possible for him to walk out of circumstances like losing Game 7 of the World Series. If he wasn’t able to win the game that day it was alright because he had given it everything that he had. But he wasn’t going to second-guess his faith or ability due to the loss.

Rivera suggested that we need to shine in the middle of adversity. He said, “You still have to point to the sky and say, you know what, Lord? Thank you for this moment, because you permitted it.”

My third and final faith encounter happened quite unexpectedly and it was, I believe, the thing that renewed or reconnected me to a closer feeling to God and my faith.

It happened last month when I was at the hospital in Toms River NJ visiting my Mother. On my 2nd day there, I arrived at the hospital quite early in the morning – about an hour before visiting hours started. When I entered my Mother’s room she was sleeping so I sat down and started to pray.

A few minutes later a Catholic priest appeared at the door. He was doing his daily visitation rounds. I told him that I was here from New York to see my Mother.

He then asked me if I’d like to share communion with him. Now I know that the Methodist communion table is open to all but I also know that this is not the case in the Catholic Church concerning the sacrament of Communion. So, I explained to him that although my Mom was Catholic and I had been raised in the Catholic faith that I was now a Methodist and about 5 years ago had taken a reaffirmation of faith and joined the Methodist Church.

We talked for a few minutes about my involvement in teaching Sunday school and my service as a lay servant in my church. He then again asked me if I’d like to share communion with him and that the only requirement, as far as he was concerned, was a belief in God which I clearly had.

So, he gave me communion and we prayed together (my Mom was sleeping through this) and this exchange was so comforting and healing to me. I thought it was so cool that he could set aside whatever differences about communion might exist because the moment asked only to do what Jesus would do.

To me, this final faith encounter was comforting and healing for sure, but it also reaffirmed my belief that there is so much more all people and all religions share than the minor differences.

And most important, it left me feeling, once again, connected to God. Amen.

“Visions or Dreams?”

This is one of the first messages I ever gave in my lay speaking career. I had come down to Tennessee for a seminar and conference at Vanderbilt University so I arranged my flights so I could spend the weekend in Memphis with my family. (Besides, flying down over the weekend was cheaper than flying straight to Nashville for a Monday and Tuesday meeting.)

This was the 1st Sunday in Lent but I was still “picking and choosing my scriptures instead of using the lectionary as I do now (I don’t think that I was even aware of the lectionary readings at that time). So my starting scriptures for this message were 1 Samuel 17: 46 and Luke 23: 39 – 43.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was also preparing a chemical education seminar for presentation to the Chemistry Department at Vanderbilt University tomorrow and another talk dealing with computers, communication, and education for presentation on Wednesday. I hope to keep them straight, but if you learn anything about chemistry or computers today, count it as a bonus.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia Convention and gave a speech that we may have read and perhaps even memorized. He closed that speech with these lines:

Gentlemen may cry peace, peace –– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it the gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty or give me death! (Patrick Henry, A Biography, Richard R. Beeman, 1974

With these words, Patrick Henry provided the spark that brought Virginia into the Revolutionary War. What was Patrick Henry thinking of as he spoke these inspiring words? What vision was before him that might have given him the power to speak them? From the available evidence, it appears that Patrick Henry’s wife was very mentally ill. While we have a somewhat enlightened attitude about mental illness today, the same was not true in the late 1700’s, when those who were mentally ill were locked away as criminals. Henry could have placed his wife in a mental institution but he chose to keep her at home, though locked away in the basement. This image of his beloved wife locked away in the basement of their plantation was probably the inspiration and vision that allowed him to speak the words “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”

Similarly, on another continent, another vision of freedom led to the following interchange between Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, and John Wesley:

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

Wesley – My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever, therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. (Frank Baker, John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript, August, 1739)

With these words, John Wesley began the preaching which eventually would lead to the formation of what is now the United Methodist Church. The vision that inspired Wesley to begin his ministry related to what was happening to the people of England during the Industrial Revolution, and what the Church of England, his church, was doing about it. Or rather what it was not doing.

At that time, only those who were members of the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours, limited health care, and the lack of education that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. Like Henry’s wife, these people were locked in the basement of society and not even the Church had an interest in feeding their souls.

For Wesley, the inaction and lack of compassion shown by the Church of England toward the poor was not what the Gospel was about. To him, the Gospel was more than a collection of words one read on Sunday and then forgot the next day. Nor was it reserved for one class of society. Rather, the Gospel was alive and something you lived every day. And it was available for all people. To Wesley and his early followers, if you had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then your life and behavior reflected that acceptance. One way that was done was in how you treated individuals; even those of a lower class than your own. Were it not for the work of Wesley and the Methodist Revival in seeking to correct the many social problems of that period and the changing of many hearts by the Gospel message he (and others) preached, England would have undergone a far more violent social change than it.

Visions have long been a part of our heritage. We are all familiar with the story of Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh had a series of dreams which neither he nor his advisors were able to understand. Only Joseph was able to transform those dreams into a vision of the future and take action.

On more than one occasion Jesus Himself gave us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God on earth was to be like. We find one such vision in John 1:42 where we read, “He [Andrew] brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephus (which means Peter – in Aramaic & Greek the rock.” In renaming Simon Peter, Jesus showed us the volatile, wishy–washy fellow who was to become the rock upon which He would build the Church.

What is our vision for the church today? Is our church built, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, on love? Is the mission of our church the one given to Peter? From Acts 1:3 – 18, we read

“…saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ But Peter began and explained to them in order: I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance, I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up to heaven. At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God.

Then so to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life. (Acts 10:3 – 1)

In this vision, Peter was shown that the Gospel is for everyone. Yet today, in a society split by race, creed, and economic status, is our church a beacon of hope and love for all those who seek Jesus? Does our church today reflect the concern for society and the well–being of its members that was expressed by both Jesus and John Wesley? We may have answers to these difficult questions but unless action is taken, these answers may only be our dreams. But today’s problems, generated by fear and hatred, will not go away by dreaming or even if we just ignore them.

Robert Kennedy, during that fateful presidential campaign in 1968, often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “You see things and say ‘why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’ We must transform our dreams about what the church is into a vision of what the church should be and can do.

But from where will the power come to make our vision reality? Where can we turn to find the power to deal with today’s problems? The Gospel still has the power to meet the problems we now face. But the Gospel alone will not make today’s problems go away. The only way we can solve these problems and transform ourselves and our church into the vision shown to us by Jesus is through action. Not just any action, but action powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Consider David as he prepared for battle with Goliath:

“Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.’ And David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near the Philistine.

And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield–bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.’

Then David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand. (Samuel 17:38 – 47)

David, armed only with a slingshot and his faith in God, could stand before Goliath while all the armies of Israel ran away. But it wasn’t David who defeated Goliath; it was the Holy Spirit. You can take all the armies in the world and they will still be defeated by the Holy Spirit.

It was the Holy Spirit which gave Jesus the wisdom to answer the questions in the temple when he was just a boy of twelve.

After three days they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41 – 52)

Today is the First Sunday in Lent. This is our time of preparation for the walk to Calvary; a time to reflect on how we live. It also that time when we can allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.

The Pharisees sought to get rid of Jesus because they were not prepared for the Holy Spirit nor were they ready for the new church. The disciples were instructed to wait in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit, and then they were to go out and preach. A dream or vision not supported by the Holy Spirit is doomed to failure. How powerful is the Holy Spirit? It continually offers hope to all, even on the cross.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,

‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man had done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.’

And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39 – 43)

Wesley’s spirit was ignited by the flame of the Holy Spirit and with the Holy Spirit came the power to preach the Gospel and revitalize the people, the church and the nation.

So too can it be for us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Holy Savior in our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to fill our lives, the dreams we have become visions, and we gain the power to turn those visions into reality.

A Particular Point In Time

I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46. 


This has been edited since it was first posted.


I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)

As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.

To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.

Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.

Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.

It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.

When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.

It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.

It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.

Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.

Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.

What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?

I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.

I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.

I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.

This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.

We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.

How Long?

These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

I am sure that there are some people on this planet who feel the recent earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami, and then the nuclear reactor disaster are the harbingers of the final days. Or perhaps they wondered just how much more humanity can take.

We know that people can survive for long periods of time without food, though the actual length depends on the individual’s physical situation and circumstance. But we can only go three or four days without water and even less time without oxygen.

From that standpoint, we need to look around at the world and what we have done to it. Our supplies of fresh water have always been limited and our cavalier attitude about the environment means that what fresh water and clean air that remains will soon be gone if we are not careful.

But how long can the spirit survive when it is assaulted? Look around at what is going on in the world and tell me if the human spirit may have reached such a point. Would the revolutions in the Middle East have occurred if the governments were not more attuned to the needs and cries of the people? Would the protest in Wisconsin have occurred if the governor were more attuned to the needs and wants of all the people instead of one or two rich individuals who want to keep all that they have?

I cannot explain the politics of this country, of people losing their rights and then watching whatever safety net might be in place taken away as well and cheering as it is done. I cannot explain how it is that so many people in this country are willing to cheer on the politicians who stand up and call for the removal of all social programs while allowing the military and defense budgets to keep growing, who stand up and call for less taxes for the rich but not for the rest of the country. I cannot explain how a politician can say that they are for jobs yet support measures and policies that take away jobs. I cannot explain how anyone can say that they are a Christian yet wrap themselves in the American flag and disdain helping the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.

Look around and tell me that is not what is happening in this country and around the globe today. And tell me why there are not more protests?

I have friends who feel that this country is on the verge of a revolution because a small group of individuals who have virtually all the wealth are trying to take what’s left as well. There are already those who call this country a plutocracy where a few rich individuals own everything and have no desire at all to share with anyone. How long can the human spirit endure?

How long can a church survive in a world where its members do not want to hear that their responsibility is to the people in their community and that the church is a sanctuary against the evil in the world? How long can a church survive when it only gives lip service to the food closet that is open once a week but for which the lines grow longer every day?

As you perhaps know from previous posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry at our church. It is one of two such ministries that take place on the weekends at our church. When she started this ministry, my wife wanted to feed the neighborhood children because many of them did not get a breakfast on the weekends. That hasn’t developed as we thought it might and maybe we should have stopped the ministry when it became apparent that it wasn’t headed in the direction we thought it would go. But that isn’t always God’s plan, now is it?

After all, as the Israelites wandered in the desert, they probably didn’t have a firm idea of where they were actually headed and each day’s journey was predicated on where the next water hole might be located.

So, we have kept this ministry going, giving between twenty and thirty individuals, some out of work, some homeless, some with substance abuse problems a good breakfast each Saturday and Sunday morning. It would appear that other ministries are going to come out of all of this, perhaps directed towards changing the direction of the lives of these individuals. But it hasn’t been easy. It is safe to say that there are individuals in the church who aren’t exactly thrilled that people off the street are coming into “their” church. And while many in the church worry about how the church will keep its doors open, they seem reluctant to let just anyone come through those open doors. I only say that because it seems to me that this is indicative of what is transpiring across the country. We have turned the sanctuary of the church into a safe haven for the members, protecting them from the evil outside the walls, instead of offering sanctuary to those whom evil will consume and whom society will toss on the garbage heap.

There are those who would tell us that we need to stop this ministry. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job for four years and it hasn’t been the easiest road to walk. There are times when we sound like the Israelites screaming at Moses about the lack of fresh water. The desert can be very cruel to people without water but just when the Israelites are screaming the loudest, God tells Moses what to do to get the water. That’s the way it has been with this ministry and I suspect that God will show us where to find the funds that will enable us to continue the journey. (And if you so desire to be a part of this effort, the address is “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen c/o Grace UMC, P. O. Box 2556, Newburgh, NY 12250.)

But Ann didn’t start this ministry for glorification or hope that God would repay us for our generosity. I don’t help where I can and write about it because I am expecting a pat on the back. It is because there are people out there whom society has cast aside and said that, because of one thing or another, they aren’t worthy of anything. But the church has said that each person is worthy and we are trying to put the words of the Gospel into action. And when the woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, Jesus offers her the respect that she is missing in her life.

Perhaps I am wrong about my assessment of the state of the world and the state of the church. But I also know that when society was in similar situations, it was the church that changed the course. When I first began my lay speaking ministry, I would say that England was saved from the violent revolution that overtook France in the years following our own revolution. I had read something about it but didn’t make note of where I had read it. But later on, I would find other documents that said the same thing – that because of the work that John Wesley and the other early Methodists did with regards to healthcare, schooling, prison and work reform, England did not undergo the violent revolution that would engulf France.

Look around and tell me if we are not in the same situation today. It isn’t just what is happening elsewhere; it is what is happening in our own backyards and neighborhoods. And Paul tells us that Christ has arrived at just the right time. When we open our doors to Christ, we find that the same doors have already been opened. And our fears that there is nothing that we can do are cast aside because of what Christ did for us so many years ago.

We are halfway through Lent. That means that there are only twenty days left in this journey. That means that there are twenty days left to make a decision, a decision to follow Christ, to put the Gospel message into action. How long will it take? How long before it is too late? How long, O Lord, how long?

This Journey into Lent

Here are my thoughts for this 1st Sunday of Lent, 13 March 2011 (not sure why but I had this as 2005 when I first posted it). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7; Romans 5: 12 – 19; and Matthew 4: 1 – 11.

I presented these thoughts at the beginning worship for the Lenten School, a collection of classes on a variety of topics. This year, we had a basic course in lay speaking, a course in sermon planning, and advanced courses in preaching, caring ministries, spiritual gifts, a study of Ecclesiastes, and Christian Stewardship. There is also a six-week Lenten Study and a “rock camp” for youth.

We are all on a journey. For some, it is not just a journey of time but place. After all, unless you happen to live here at Grace UMC, you have traveled some distance to be here.

But during Lent, this journey becomes a journey of the soul as we seek to find out more about ourselves and who we are to be in this world. We know where this journey began and why. It is a journey that began for all mankind in the Garden so many years ago.

We also know that this some forty days from now we will be in another Garden. As Paul wrote to the Romans, just as one died for doing wrong and getting us all into trouble with sin and death, so did another person get it right and get us out of trouble.

But we struggle with those days in between. Our journey confuses at times; at times we are not even sure where we are.

And if we get confused and we know where we started and where we are going, think of those today that are searching for those central points of life.

So we are here, seeking and hoping, being tested by society in ways much like Jesus was those first forty days of His ministry.

Our fear perhaps is that we can’t answer the Tempter as Jesus did. But we forget that once Jesus as like us, a student studying the Scriptures. Have we forgotten the young boy of 12 who engaged the teachers in thoughtful and intellectual discussion?

Can it be that what we learn during the next six weeks will open our minds and hearts just as it must have done for Jesus and those there in the Temple that day?

And lest we forget, we are United Methodists where education is as much a foundation of our faith as reason, experience, and tradition.

For some, the journey begins; for others, it continues. And though forty days from now, this gathering ends, the journey continued.

Because there will be times when we will be like Stephen and encounter some one searching just as we once did. And you will be able to help them on their way.

So let the journey begin.

“The Beginning or the End”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 1st Sunday in Lent, 13 February 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7; Romans 5: 12 – 19; and Matthew 8: 1 – 11.


I used to play a lot of chess when I was in high school; but as time went on, my competitive playing tapered off. Chess is an interesting game, both for the logic and strategy that it teaches as well as the history of the game. But one thing always confused me. In chess, there is an opening, a middle game, and an end game. The only problem is that there is very little differentiation between each of the sections. You start with a particular opening gambit and then before you know it, you are in the middle game. And, if you are not careful, you are in the end game and the game is over.

The same can probably be said about the life of a church or churches in general. Some look around at the world and conclude that we are in the "end times." But are we?

Last year, I was concerned that the end of the United Methodist Church was close at hand. I saw signs that suggested that the General Conference would be the most divisive conference, at least since the General Conference of 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery and slave ownership.

When you look at the history of the Methodist Church, it is amazing that it even exists today. In the early 1800’s, the Methodist Episcopal Church walked a fine line between opposing slavery and allowing its members to own slaves. The African Methodist Church (or A. M. E. church) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church were formed because of the way black parishioners and preachers were treated in the predominantly white churches of this country. In 1830, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed in protest because the General Conference would not grant representation to laity in church matters and permit the direct election of presiding elders (our district superintendents).

In 1844, when the General Conference ordered James O. Andrew, a southern bishop, to either get rid of the slaves that his wife owned or give up his position as bishop, he chose to do neither. The conference voted to suspend him until he did one of the two. In response, the southern delegates to the General Conference walked out. In 1845, the delegates met and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church South. This split lasted until the union of the three branches of the church, the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South reunited to form the Methodist Church in 1939.

It should be noted that many of the churches in the ME South suffered great damage during the Civil War. Most notably was the battle fought at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee on April 6th and 7th, 1862. It is known in the annals of the war as the Battle of Shiloh, named after the Methodist church where the battle was fought. 23,746 men were killed, wounded, or missing after the two day battle on the grounds of a place named for peace.

But the General Conference of 2004 did not split the church. But the issues that threaten the destruction of the United Methodist Church still exist and will not go away until there is a new vision, a new way of seeing things and working together. It is also a problem that is going to plague and haunt most Christian denominations over the coming years.

Many people who need to find Jesus are not willing to come to a church that they perceive does not welcome them, for whatever reason. There is a perception that if you do not fit into the mold of the church, you will not be welcome. I cannot imagine how this is the image of Christ’s ministry described in the Bible. Did not the Pharisees and power brokers of the day criticize Jesus for being with the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and those that they, the Pharisees and power brokers, considered the "scum" of the earth? What images do those outside the church see? Do they think they will find Christ in a place that bans people for any number of reasons?

It comes down to what we say and what we do. Are the words that we say the words in our heart? Are they the words of a true Christian? Consider what we read this morning from the Old Testament.

In the first part of the reading, we hear God say to Adam, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2: 16 – 17) But Eve says to the serpent, "we may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’" (Genesis 3: 3)

Now, much has been made about Eve engaging in this conversation and much has been made about the fact that Adam ate of the fruit of this tree when it was offered to him by Eve. But that should not be our concern today. It is that in response to the challenge of the serpent, Eve did not hold to the obedience to God that was expected of her. In his accepting the fruit, be it an apple or something else, Adam also gave up his obedience to God. Eve’s distortion of God’s command is not the problem; as one commentary points out, what she said would have insured that the command was kept. What is important is that the serpent’s challenge is a challenge to God’s authority; for Eve, it creates a doubt about God’s authority.

We see the same thing when we look at the temptation of Christ. Satan tempts Christ by quoting the Bible. But each time Satan speaks, he puts the context in terms of personal power rather than the glory of God. Satan is challenging the authority of God. Ultimately, Jesus defeats Satan because He, Jesus, will not put the world above God. The kingdom that Jesus seeks in His ministry is God’s kingdom, not a worldly one.

How does this all fit into this time, this season of Lent? Thomas Merton wrote,

"The purpose of Lent is not expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in God’s love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God’s mercy – a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.

Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. IF we are terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await God’s mercy, or approach God trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace. (Thomas Merton, in "Seasons of Celebration" as noted in Sojo mail for February 10, 2005.)

We have allowed ourselves to live in a world of fear. Note Adam and Eve’s response to the knowledge that they had sinned; it was fear, fear that they had offended God. In their fear, they hid from God. And in our sin, we try to find ways of reclaiming God that do not necessarily involve God.

Paul’s words to the Romans offer us the knowledge that sin took away. That life comes from God through Christ. It is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that brings us back into God’s kingdom. As Paul states, "one man’s obedience to God means that many will be made righteous."

As I stated earlier, I worried about the future of the church following General Conference last year, especially since much of what took place was a battle of words, all in the name of God. But I have hope for the future. But it is a hope based on a different vision, not one offered by man but one offered by God.

We cannot offer hope for the future by ourselves; it must come from God. The prophet Habakkuk was a dissenter, a critic, and a voice of the opposition. He was the type of person who spoke out about the problems of society. But at the beginning of his prophecy, he did little to change society. It was when God spoke to him and told him to write down the vision that things began to change. (Adapted from God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, page 27) 

For us, it is the cross that is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism.

It means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power; it is this freedom, justice, and power that break the power of the old age and bring it to death. Without the cross, prophetic imaginations will likely to be as strident and destructive as that which it criticizes. The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one. (Adapted from The Prophetic Imagination by Water Brueggemann (Cokesbury prayer guide)

The crucifixion of Jesus is not to be understood simply in good liberal fashion as the sacrifice of a noble man, nor should we too quickly assign a cultic, priestly theory of atonement to the event. Rather, we might see the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death and takes that death into his own person.

We celebrate Holy Communion for two reasons. The first is to remember that last night before the crucifixion; the second is to celebrate what that crucifixion means for our lives today. We see the world in one way when we live without Christ; when we accept Christ as our own and personal Savior, when we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, the way in which we see the world changes.

Is today the beginning or the end? It is the first Sunday in Lent, so in one sense it is the beginning. But it is also the end of a life lived without Christ, if we will let it be. The beginning or the end, the answer lies in your heart.

The End Of The Year

I am at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday; service is at 10 am.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, are Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.


When I first read the Scriptures for today and considered the significance of this Sunday in the church year, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice.”

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

This is the last Sunday in the church year and next week we begin the season of Advent. So it is that today we can truly look forward to the coming of Christ. But these are not the “End Times” that so many people equate with the coming of Christ; it is merely the end of the year.

Still, there are those who say that these are the “End Times”, a time when God will destroy the earth and all of His creation in a fit of rage because of our sins. It seems to me, though, that those who so loudly proclaim this apocalyptic forecast are among those who, into today’s Gospel reading, ask Christ who were the sick, the homeless, the needy and the oppressed.

It strikes me, and I have had these thoughts for as long as I can remember, that those who proclaim the sinfulness of this world and the need to repent are among those who ignore the less fortunate and are quick to cast out from their church any who do not meet their criteria when it comes to race, gender, or economic status. Those whom Jesus said would be cast into the fires of hell are those who proclaim their own self-righteousness and say that those who are less fortunate than they have only themselves to blame.

In today’s world, it seems to me that too many self-proclaimed Christians have no problem equating sin and poverty but will not speak out against those who grow fat from the labors of others. That was the warning that Ezekiel gave to the people in today’s Old Testament reading. Those who had grown fat and lazy off the efforts of the workers were the ones who would feel God’s wrath.

And while it would be easy to find such individuals in the news of the day, we have to be very careful about how we read such news. We are in the process of quickly returning to the same attitudes that dominated society in England and America in the early 1700’s, the time when John Wesley began to take a critical look at his church, the Church of England.

The church of Wesley’s day showed little concern for the poor, the sick, the homeless and the ones caught up in the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of increasing drug and alcohol addiction; it was a time of child labor and no medical care for the lower class. It was a time when people believed that poverty was a sign of one’s sins and that it was your sins, or the lack of them, that determined your success in life. If you were successful in life, then it was obvious that God had smiled on you and rewarded you for your diligence and righteous life; if you were not successful in life, then it was obvious that you had incurred God’s displeasure. It is an attitude that is very much a part of today’s society as well.

We still see and seek riches as a means of measuring success; we are only interested in those things that will bring us wealth and power. But wealth and power will not necessarily gain one’s admittance into heaven.

Jesus told the story of the rich man who was condemned to hell, even though he had led an apparently righteous life. But in his daily passage to the Temple to meet his religious obligations, he ignored the beggar by his door. And because he ignored the beggar by his door, his actions at the Temple carried the mark of hypocrisy.

Jesus told the rich young man to give away everything he owned and to follow Him on His mission; the rich young man walked away because he was unable to give up that which he had and because he was unwilling to walk a different path.

We have lost track of the fact that life cannot be found in riches but in what one does with one’s riches, no matter how much we have or how little we have. We have also lost track that there are many who do not have anything and, as Wesley himself so often pointed out, it is very difficult to think about the Kingdom of Heaven when you cannot put food on the table for you and your children or clothes on your back or your children’s backs.

As we come to the end of this current year and begin to prepare for the true coming of Christ, we have to ask ourselves what this means for us today and what we shall do.

Shall we continue to walk down the path that we have been walking? It is clear that to do so would only end in turmoil, destruction, and death. We do not need for God to destroy this world; we are doing quite a good job of it ourselves.

Those who say that these are the End Times use the words of the Bible as a weapon and as words of hate and exclusion when the words of the Bible are words of love and inclusion. We do not need words of hatred and destruction; we need words of hope and promise.

Last Thursday would have been Robert F. Kennedy’s 83rd birthday. During that fateful Presidential campaign of 1968, he said many things but no words carried more weight than the ones he spoke on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis.

That was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN and as news of Dr. King’s death spread across the country, the anger of the people for such an act exploded in rage and violence. What Senator Kennedy said that night in Indianapolis still holds true today.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Senator Kennedy continued by saying,

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

If we are to make those same words true today, for I think we have forgotten them and what they mean, we must see the world in a different light. And to see the world in a different light, we must have a change of heart.

If we do not change our heart, we cannot change our mind and will find ourselves no better than we are now. Changing our heart will lift us out of our present state, a state of selfishness, arrogance, pride, idolatry, sensuality, and slavery. To change one’s heart is a call for repentance, to begin a new life found in the liberation of the Gospel message.

In the Gospel we find a new path, a path that transcends all cultures, all human constructs, all civilizations and conventions. The Gospel is eternal, while politics and culture, including Christian culture, are fixed in time. (Adapted from I, Francis by Carlo Carretto)

And yes, this is a call for repentance, a call first given by John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a call given by Jesus, by Paul and all the disciples. For to repent is to begin a new life, a new life found in Christ, to go beyond the limits of time.

Yes, Jesus is coming but this does not mean it is the end of the world. It is only the end of the year and it means that we have an opportunity to seek a better world. We do have that chance and we should take it.