“The Alternative View”

This will be on the back page of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC for this coming Sunday (October 07, 2018, 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B)

My interest in the Book of Job has ranged over the years from antipathy to curiosity to a desire to understand.  And I think that is one of the reasons that it is incorporated in the Old Testament canon; there is a need to understand who God is and our relationship with Him.

In the opening chapters of Job, as his fortune and life disappear, all of Job’s friends, and even his wife, tell him that he had to have done something to displease God.  For that is the traditional view of life – you do good things and you are rewarded; you do bad things and you are punished – there is no alternative.

Job suggests that there is an alternative and, in the coming chapters, will seek an audience with God to understand what that alternative is.

The writer of Hebrews and Mark point out that traditional view has been changed with the presence of Jesus.  It is a view that we have been presented with this past week and which is going to challenge us in the coming days.

The question that we must ask ourselves is very simple.  Will we stay with the traditional view, knowing that it does not lead us to Christ?  Or shall we endeavor to open our minds, our hearts, and our souls to Christ and see the alternative view that is offered?

~~Tony Mitchell

“We Are Outsiders!”

This is for the back page of the 22 October 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) Fishkill UMC bulletin.

I once wrote that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very old (“Seeing The Trees For The Forest”).  I also noted that I thought he would be fascinated by today’s technology and looking for ways to use that technology to better spread the Gospel message.   Because that is what his mission was, I think he would also be very angry at those people who call themselves Methodists.

John Wesley was an anachronism.  He believed in rules (which is, in part, why we have the Book of Discipline) but he also saw that rules by themselves could not bring the change he sought.  Still, until he fully accepted Christ at Aldersgate, his legalistic style of religion was failing.  But after Aldersgate, things changed.

When Methodism began in England, England was on the verge of the same bloody revolution that had just swept across France.  But because of the work of the early Methodists, there was no bloody revolution.  Methodists reached across the lines drawn by society and brought the Gospel message to the people in word and deed, alleviating much of the pain and suffering the lower classes endured.

There were those who did not like the Methodist success; those who lived in this country were barred from preaching in the accepted state churches.  Those barriers forced the Methodists to go “outside the box” and find ways to bring the Gospel message to the people.  But, in doing that, they opened the doors for the Methodist message to reach even more people.

We have inherited the title of “outsider”, of continuing a faith tradition that goes beyond the boundaries of society and law, of bringing people to Christ no matter where they might be by our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions.                                    ~~Tony Mitchell


“How Do You Reach Your Goals?”

Mediation for October 26, 2014, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8; Matthew 22: 34 – 46

The problem with following the lectionary is that sometimes you don’t know the “whole” story. Of course, that implies that 1) you only follow the lectionary on Sundays and don’t do any reading during the week or 2) you have never studied the Bible.

There is something in my mind’s files that says that there is a lectionary reading for each day of the week to fill in the gaps between the readings on Sundays. And I know that there are parallel readings that are often covered in Sunday School so that the stories that we remember growing up are taught (since many of the Old Testament stories seem to be missing in the Sunday lectionary readings). And I would hope that there are supplemental or additional readings during the week, especially in the New Testament so that we get to cover the writings of Jude (which never show on Sunday).

But if you have never studied the Bible or done any regular reading, then the line in Deuteronomy where God tells Moses that he can look at the Promised Land but that he will never enter it has to be quite a shock. Especially when a few lines later, it is noted that there were no prophets like Moses in Israel after his death.

What was it that prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land? What had he done that was so wrong that he could see the object of the Exodus but would never be allowed to reach? Let’s put it this way. My guess is that the answer is not what you think it is.

Earlier in the Exodus, the people wanted water to drink and Moses provided it. But he did not provide in the manner that God had prescribed and what he, along with his brother Aaron did, was sufficient for God to be really, really angry. So while Moses did the right thing in providing a fresh water supply for the people, he did not do in the manner that reflected God’s work in the process.

The Pharisees come to Jesus and seek to trap him, trying to find some way that they can show the people that Jesus is not who He says He is but some charlatan out to deceive the people and gain all the power for Himself. Of course, we all know by now that the Pharisees and others in the religious/political power structure of the time are more interested in keeping the power for themselves (or at least we should know that by now).

So when Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, Jesus says to love your God with all your heart and mind and spirit. This question from the Pharisees, like all the other questions they have been asking, always seeks to determine the priorities in life one has. Where are your priorities? How will you reach the goals you have in life?

Some years ago, when I was working on my Masters degree at the University of Missouri, an assignment required that I review a book. The book that I picked dealt with a topic related to statistical quality control. Now, it was a short book so it was easy to read (or I thought it was easy to read) and I thought that it covered the topic pretty well. Now, on the day that I was to give the review in class, I happened to be at one of the local low-cost mega-stores that had sales in aisles for a few moments. As it happened, the book that I was reviewing was being sold at a ridiculously low price. So my review that night was that it was a good book and covered the topic pretty well but it was on sale at that store for $2.00 which should give you some idea of its value. The professor leading this course agreed with my review and noted that he knew the author and that the author had written the book as part of the tenure process. The value of the book wasn’t in what I got out of it but what the writer got.

Are we doing what we do because we get something out of it or are we doing it because it furthers the work of God’s Kingdom? Now, this isn’t one of those things where we succeed and we proudly announce to all that it was for God’s Glory. I think that is a round-about way of saying that we are doing whatever it is we are doing for ourselves.

Paul warns the Thessalonians about doing something that has mixed motives or hidden agendas. Perhaps it is the Methodist in me but we don’t do something because of what we might get out of it but because it is what we are supposed to be doing. Do we shop at a Christian store because it is a Christian store or because it is a good store to buy what we need?

We are reminded that when John Wesley first began what came to be known as the Methodist Revival, he did it in a legal and mechanical way, a way with absolutely no feeling. And at the beginning, it was an abysmal failure. Now, when you look at what he and the other early Methodists were doing, one might get the idea that it should have worked. But it was being done for the individual and not for God, nor was God anywhere in the process.

But when the Holy Spirit became a part of the process, in that night that we have come to called Aldersgate, things changed.

Where are you in this process? Is what you do for you or for God? Are you doing what God wants you to do or are you trying to do what you think God wants? This is perhaps the hardest question one has to answer because we are so tempted to do something our way and then say that it was for God.

How do you reach your goals? Do you start with God? Do you consider God in the process? Now is the time to make a decision, not unlike the one John Wesley made many years ago, to trust in God and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the process.

Now is the time to decide how you will reach your goals.

“Do You See the Light?”

This is the message I gave for Laity Sunday, October 16, 1994, at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore United Methodist Church (Sycamore, KS). It was also the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B) but I choose Acts 9: 3 – 9; 17 – 19 and John 9: 30 – 34 as my Scripture readings.

Caves are very interesting places. For early mankind, caves offered shelter from the weather. During times of trouble, caves offered places to hide. Many a prophet hid in caves when the people got angry. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves. Even today, they serve as places of entertainment. One thing that used to dominate the countryside, especially in this part of the county, were barns painted with advertising to come and view Meramec Caverns outside St. Louis. I am sure that many of you have seen such advertising.

If you have never taken a tour of a cave, you should. And inevitably, during the tour, after you have gone deep into the passages, the tour guide will have everyone stop and then he (or she) will turn off the lights. When that happens, you begin to get the feeling of what it is to be blind. Nothing else comes close. Even at night time, with no moon, there is still enough light to allow us to see. In a cave with no added lights, the statement “so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your face” comes true.

It is also at such times that we can understand the fear that Saul must have felt when he was blinded by the Holy Spirit.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.(Acts 9: 3 – 9)

The fortunate thing for Paul is that the blindness he suffered on the road to Damascus and the darkness we are surrounded by when we are in the caves is only temporary. Even while he struggled with his blindness, Paul knew that the God would take care of him. We know that the lights will come back on inside the cave.

Still, the thought of becoming blind is very frightening. Even in today’s enlighten times, it is hard for us to realize the limitations that society placed on the blind. During the 17 and 1800’s, the blind were often institutionalized. For others, though, blindness is not so temporary. It was perhaps even worse during Jesus’ time. The blind were looked upon with pity and sorrow for it was felt that, in someway, their blindness was due to some sin in their life. And if the person was born blind, as was the case of the individual in the passage we read in John, the sins were assumed to have been those of his parents.

Against the background of blindness and an indifferent society, the author of the three hymns we sing today, Fanny Crosby, triumphed. Most people are probably aware of the many traditional Methodist hymns written by Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother. However, I am sure that not many people are aware that over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy.

Fanny Crosby was much like the blind man in John. Her presence and her song writing skills were to let others know what joy Jesus brings to our lives.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance”. Through her faith, through the light provided by Jesus, she saw just as well as you or I, perhaps even better.

Today, as we begin looking to the coming new century, we hear a lot of talk about our country’s lack of vision. But why should we be surprised by our country’s lack of vision. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If the people do not have a vision of what they expect for the future, how can we expect the country to know where it is going? If the government is to have a firm sense of direction for the coming years, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church.

Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day we honor all those who have worked for the church during the past year. It is also an opportunity to look at how we, the members of the church, can work for the betterment of the the church and society. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our observation of Laity Sunday comes at the same time as our national elections or the meeting of the Nominations Committee of the local church. This is the time when we set the direction we want our church and our country to take. Yet, at least on the national level, this direction is very, very confusing.

The tone of most political commercials today seems to be how bad the opponent will be for the country. During the last two presidential campaigns, there were a number of complaints about the negative nature of the advertising. It does not appear that much has changed in the past two years. I heard a political advertisement the other day as I was driving to Tulsa. In this commercial, the challenger stated that his opponent was out of touch with Oklahoma and then he went through all the bad things the opponent had done. For this candidate, the solution to the problem was for the voters of Oklahoma to vote for him. Yet, this challenger never did say what it was that he would do if he were elected. Kansas political ads appear to be no different.

But our political campaigns are merely a reflection of the way we have allowed our nation. Whether it is in politics or just everyday living, the majority in this country willingly let others tell them how to act, what to wear, and how to think. At the time when the world is at peace, when the Glory of God should be shining through, we have lost our direction. We stand at the brink of the greatest time of our lives and our direction is set by others, not by God.

We are like the Israelites standing before the Promised Land. We struggled for many years to reach this point and now we wait for the final report. In the case of the Israelites, it was a matter of sending in twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel. You would have thought that, considering the time in the wilderness and all the difficulties that trip had to overcome, the people would have been overjoyed. Yet what did the spies report:

“We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(Numbers 13: 31 – 33)

And to this, the people cried

“Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”(Numbers 14: 2 – 3)

Every time during the Exodus when the Israelites ran into trouble, they cried out how Moses and Aaron had failed them and that they were going to die in the wilderness. Faced with the difficulties of traveling and living in the wilderness, knowing that the Promised Land was just inches away, the Israelites would have rather turned around and returned to the seemingly comfortable life of slavery in Egypt. Are we not like that today? Isn’t it much easier for us to complain about the present situation than to work towards improving our lot?

The turmoil in our lives today is directly related to the fact that we, both as a nation and individually, have lost our commitment to God. We have forgotten that with God, all things are possible. We no longer put God first in our lives and, as a result, have lost our spiritual direction. Like the Pharisees, we have become blind to the troubles of the world. In a world split by race, creed, and economic status, we see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. Even though He has repeatedly told us that he would provide, we no longer have faith that God will do so.

It is admittedly not an easy task. But it was their faith in God that enabled the Israelites to leave slavery in Egypt and make the trip to the Promised Land in the first place. It was their faith in God that enabled them to conquer that land. Despite the negative report from ten of the spies, not all of the Israelites had lost their faith in God. Joshua and Caleb offered a different opinion of what was in the Promised Land.

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. (Numbers 14: 6 – 10)

Joshua and Caleb put their faith in the Lord and were rewarded for their faith. When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after spending the extra time wandering, only Joshua and Caleb were still alive to enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land. Those who had lost their faith had died during the extra years in the wilderness.

It is the same for us. In these times of trial, all we have to do is return to God. As James wrote

“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”(James 1: 5 – 8)

When God sent the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not do so without providing them instruction. Even as they began that journey from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land, they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

I have painted an admittedly dark picture of our and this country’s future. Yet, the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites by night and the pillar of cloud which accompanied them by day is still present today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples in the passage from John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

Paul understood what it meant to see the world through the light of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinthians.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.(2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

The light that shines in the darkness today is Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is that light which can guide each one of us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we will be like Saul regaining his sight and becoming Paul.

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,who has appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.(Acts 9: 17 – 19)

We are entering a world which is becoming increasingly dark and forbidding. We, you and I, must make a choice. We can live our lives in the total darkness of sin or we can live our lives in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ. The question is ours to answer “Do you see the Light?”

What Do You Do?

This was the message that I gave on 24 October 1993 at Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN as part of Laity Sunday. While this was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, it was still early in my lay speaking career and I was still “picking and choosing” my Scripture readings instead of following the lectionary as I do today.

I wasn’t supposed to give the message this year. Though it was only October, I knew that I would be moving to Kansas after the current school year was completed and I wanted to begin a transition from “leader” to “observer”. I had organized the previous two Laity Sunday services and felt that others should begin getting involved. But on the Saturday afternoon before this Sunday, the person scheduled to give the message called and told me he was unable to be in church on Sunday and I would need to fill in. As this was early in my career, I wasn’t quite ready to do so but when you are a lay speaker you have said that you would answer the call when it is made and that is what I did. Because of the time frame of preparation, I liberally borrowed from messages I had given elsewhere figuring that no one present at Grace had been present at the places in Missouri and Tennessee where I had preached earlier. Unfortunately I forgot that one of those messages had been videotaped and I had shared that tape with some of the congregation. J

I based my thoughts for this message on 2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6 and Matthew 15: 24 – 25.

One of the churches where I have been a member is large enough to have a senior pastor and an associate pastor. During the Sunday worship, the associate pastor takes care of the lectionary readings, the prayers of the congregation, and the offering. There is also a youth minister to take care of the “Children’s Moment”. This leaves the senior pastor to concentrate on the sermon. At this church it is the custom for the children, following the “Children’s Moment”, to go to another area of the church where they have a Children’s service. One Sunday, as one young girl walked by the pulpit, she looked at the senior pastor and asked “What do you do?” For you see, every Sunday this child saw the associate pastor lead the congregation in prayer and other activities. She would go up to the altar to be with the Youth Minister for the “Children’s Moment”. But all she saw the other man do was sit in his chair because she, along with the other children, left before he preached. In answer to her question, the senior pastor did the “Children’s Moment” the next week.

“What do you do” has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves “What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?” What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry.

John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.

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

John Wesley — “My lord, my business on earth is to 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 the most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal”, 16th to 24th August, 1739.)

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation which ignores members of its society can never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you had lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must also be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all who seek it.

Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. If that meant preaching in fields, then they preached in the fields.

When conditions cry for revolution, there will be a revolution. Many historians have looked at the conditions in England, both economic and social, and wondered why England did not undergo a violent revolution like that of France at much the same time. The difference between the revolution in England and the revolution in France can be attributed to the nature of the Methodist revival. Wesley and the early members of the Methodist Revival, by working to bring the Gospel to the people of England and changing the conditions of society, removed the threat of a violent revolution.

It was the same for Jesus. There was a need for a revolution in his country. Not the political revolution many people sought but a spiritual revolution. For people no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. Many people at that time probably did not even know that their God cared for them. The rules and regulations of the church made it impossible for them to do so. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. The message they did hear held no promise or hope. As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians,

“He (speaking of Jesus) is the one who has helped us tell others about his new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; but we tell them there is life for them for the Holy Spirit. The old way, trying to be saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives them life. (2 Corinthians 3: 6)

In his message and in his actions, Jesus sought to bring people back to God; to show them that their Father in Heaven did care for them and did truly love them.

The same thing is true today. The world is crying for a spiritual revolution. People are leaving the church today because they see a church which no longer cares about them and is indifferent to the needs of society. Today churches are seeking ways to bring back that generation we call the “baby boomers”. And, whatever actions are taken, they must be taken quickly because we could lose the next two generations, the “baby busters” and the children of the baby boomers. The church’s actions must reflect its mission. Such actions must also reflect the genuine compassion that Jesus felt for those who sought Him. Elton Trueblood offers the following thought:

“Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.” (From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood)

When Jesus began to preach the Gospel, the message He gave was for everyone, not just a select few. Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His ministry was open to all who sought Him. Jesus took his ministry to the people so that the people could come to Him.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” And he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Sending her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”. And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. She said, “Yes, Lord: yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” An her daughter was healed instantly. And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. and he went up on the mountain, and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15: 21 – 31)

The salvation we gain by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior is not a two-way path. There is no way for us to gain salvation without going to Jesus Christ. But, if people are to come to Jesus, there must be a path available. Consider the desire of people who truly want to come to Jesus. In Mark 2 we read

“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.” (Mark 2: 1 – 4)

This man and his friends did what it took to get to Jesus. But not all people have such capability. If the path to Jesus is blocked, the people will turn away.

Every time we look around today, we see more reasons why the Church should be a part of society. Today, numerous studies tell churches how to revitalize their congregations, how to bring life back into dying congregations. Every time, the same answer comes through back. It is the members of the congregation which must do the work. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday honors the work of all those who do the work of the church. It also points out the role the laity has in bringing the Gospel message to the world.

Today Jesus is calling you. He is asking you to be a part of His community; to do His work. What will you do? Samuel heard God calling him and answered “Here I am Lord.” The disciples dropped what they were doing when asked by Jesus to follow Him. Paul did not want to become the missionary to the world; he wanted to put a stop to the mission of Jesus. As Saul, he saw Jesus and his followers as a threat to a way of life. Yet, after encountering the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, Paul understood what a life in Jesus Christ meant.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world (meaning Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”. (2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

Today, Jesus asks us the same question the little girl asked the senior pastor, “What do you do?” How will you answer him?

To Finish the Journey

Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 October 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 34 – 46. This has been edited since it was first posted.

Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, in other cities around the country and around the globe? I will be honest; I didn’t think there were enough people in this country willing to come to New York City or elsewhere and make a statement about the way life is going in this country. And the truth be told, if the situation would allow it, Ann and I would probably be down there.

The sad part about this protest is that there are too many people who should be there but aren’t, not because they cannot be there but because they do not understand that they should be there. The issues facing this country affect each and every one of us but there are some who are either unwilling or unable to see what lies before them.

Moses climbed to the top of the mountain and glimpsed into the Promised Land knowing that he would never set foot there. Of course, no one in that first generation of Israelites who left Egypt entered either; they weren’t even given the opportunity to see the goal they had sought. For the benefit of those who aren’t aware, the people had come to the Promised Land once before and sent spies into the land. While all twelve spies returned and confirmed that the Promised Land was indeed a land of milk and honey, ten of the twelve exaggerated the power and force of the people occupying the land. While two of the twelve did report the truth about what lie in the Promised Land, the Israelites choose to believe the other ten. And for this, God punished the people for their lack of faith and rebellion. It would be another forty years before the people would be given the opportunity to complete the journey called the Exodus.

We are at, I believe, a similar place in time. We see the truth before us but we seem to fear what we see. We seem uncertain and hesitant to cross over the River Jordan into the Promised Land because we aren’t certain about what lies there. We are dominated by a mindset that says that what we have right now is better than what might lie on the other side and we are unwilling to risk what we have in hopes of a better life.

I grew up in the 60s hearing those in power proclaim that we needed to maintain the status quo even though that meant maintaining inequality in this land. And yet, that decade started off with John Kennedy pushing this country to go beyond not only the boundaries of this country but the boundaries of this planet. But as we entered into the 70s and we fought a war in Southeast Asia, the cost of exploring the universe became too great. And I can only say that I think it was our fear of failure in Viet Nam that kept us from seeking a better world. And we have kept that mentality up until this day.

Our politics have become the politics of fear and hatred. Our fear has moved us backward in time. We seem bound and determined to return this country to a time when there were only two classes, the rich and the poor. Our middle class is shrinking and will in a few years, if nothing else changes, disappear.

Many of our churches, faced with shrinking populations, are unwilling or unable to see the mission opportunities outside their front, actually their back door. They have turned inward, holding on to what they have with the idea that yesterday was better than today and tomorrow only promises to be a disaster.

Many who call themselves Christian today hear the words of the Bible to treat the immigrant as a friend, not a stranger, because they, the people of the Bible, were once immigrants as well. Yet, while they hear those words, they either do not understand them or ignore them. They would rather build fences and walls that keep others out rather than let others in.

Many who call themselves Christian hear the words of the Bible that say to give comfort to poor and the needy yet often wish that the poor and needy would just accept their lot in life and go away. The 18th century notion that wealth is a sign of righteousness is alive and well in the 21st century. But while righteousness perhaps should imply a certain degree of sharing, the wealthy today want to keep what they have and actually want more. It seems they can’t get enough. It makes one wonder if they plan on taking their wealth and riches with them when they die.

One of the big debates in Jesus’ time was the same as today, taxes. And I would be willing to bet that the Romans imposed a flat tax on all of the citizens of Israel during that time. It is no wonder that the tax collector was one of the most hated persons in the community, especially among the lower classes. The rich weren’t hurt by the tax like the poor were and probably were able to get out of paying taxes most of the time.

And yet, with history telling us that flat taxes are regressive, i.e. hurt the ones with the least, we still seem fixated on the idea that a flat tax will solve all of our problems. I am not saying that our present tax code is that great but I also know that the alternatives before us are worse than the present situation.

I am reminded of a proposal made back in 2003 for a fair tax, one based on Judeo-Christian ethics. As I wrote in “Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?”, in 2003 the state of Alabama had and probably still has one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Besides topping out at 5%, the state also has a 4% sales tax. And communities are allowed to add their own sales tax to that 4%, creating in some places a sales tax of 10%.

Susan Price Hamill proposed a new tax code that would have been fairer than the present code, which placed an unfair burden on the poor while benefitting the middle and upper classes. Opposition to her proposal came from some of the places that you would expect (the rich, the land owners, and those who have to pay more in taxes). But opposition also came from the Alabama Christian Coalition who tried to say that Christians have no obligation to take care of their neighbors. And when that interesting piece of Christian theology failed, they resorted to slander.

There comes a time when we have to look at where we are and decide if it is better than where we might be or where we were. The Israelites chose a path that kept those who began the Exodus from ever entering or seeing the Promised Land. It would be the next generation that would be able to enter.

The church of today does not have that luxury; its policies and attitudes have driven most of the next generation away. Those who have stayed have stayed with the promise that they would be the leaders if the policies never changed. These individuals are so hungry for power that they are willing to hold onto the past, even when they see that what they will inherit is dying.

The youth of today, the hope and promise of this country are occupying Wall Street. Surprisingly, the things that they are doing are very similar to the beginnings of Christian communities two thousand years ago. But they don’t know that this is the way the church started because they don’t see it as a church. Rather they see it in what they were taught in Sunday School; they remember what Jesus did.

The Pharisees come to Jesus, again looking to trip him up with a theological question; but, as before He sees through their attempt. Referring to the Ten Commandments, they want to know which is the most important. It is an interesting question because each one of the commandments is different from the rest and you have to use all of them collectively rather than individually. And Jesus states that we are to love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and then to love others as well as we love ourselves. The rest of the law comes from there.

Just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the Promised Land but were unwilling to trust in God and fearful that their individual abilities would do them little good, so too do we put our reliance on the collection of laws and not what the laws are meant to do. We would rather make more laws that restrict than work from the basis of the laws we have. We would rather tell people what they cannot do then try to live as we are supposed. In the end, we would much rather stay where we are than try and finish the journey that we have undertaken.

If we are who we say we are, that is, if we are to be called Christians in today’s society, then we must finish the journey that was begun two thousand years ago. If we cannot love others as we love ourselves, then we will find that journey to be difficult.

We need to hear the words of Paul to the Thessalonians again, how what was said by Paul and Silas was not meant to cover things up or make things easy but to speak the truth. Paul and Silas didn’t come into Thessalonica with the airs of a television preacher, proclaiming the truth as they knew it and the people were to believe it. They did not just give the Message to the people, they gave their hearts and the Love of Christ.

We stand at the top of the mountain overlooking the Promised Land. We are being called to finish the journey but to do so we must leave the baggage of our fears and our hatred and exclusiveness behind. We must take on the mantle of Christ, to love God with all our passion, our prayers and our intelligence. And we are to love others as we would love ourselves. If there is to be a tomorrow in this world, it will be because we finished the journey that is expressed in our love for others.

Are you ready to finish the journey?

“The Answer To The Question”

Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; and Luke 17: 11 – 19.


If you haven’t noticed, there is something unique about this date. It isn’t that it is a “double” date, which it is. And it isn’t necessarily that it is a “triple” date, which it is as well. There is a “double” date in every month and there are a string of “triple” dates in every decade.

No, the uniqueness in this number comes from another source. Just as 6:02 am on October 23rd can be used to represent Avogadro’s number (NA = 6.02 x 1023), so too does the binary representation of today (101010) have a second meaning.

In base 10, 101010 is equivalent to 42. And, if you are a fan or follower of Douglas Adams, then you know that this is the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. In the process of hitch-hiking across the galaxy, the hero of the Adams’ novels encounters the ultimate computer which provides the ultimate answer, “42”. Unfortunately, the question for which this is the answer is “what is 6 * 9?” And, as I pointed out in “The Answer to the Question”, this means one of two things; either the universe and life itself are highly irrational, or whoever wrote the original question was very, very confused.

There is probably something wrong in and with society today and this is causing great conflict, grief, and distress in our lives today. Now, there are some who will gladly tell you what the solution is. Some of these individuals will be glad to sell you the secret to the solution for $19.95 plus shipping and handling charges.

Others will merrily tell you that the answer is found in the “Good Book”, the Bible, and all you have to do is send their ministry any amount of money you want and it will be used as seed money and, in no time at all, your money will be returned to you ten-fold and all your problems will disappear. Other religious types will say that the problems of this country are rooted in the moral structure of this country and that the key to finding the solution and leading a better life is found in a rigid, inflexible structure where they do the thinking for you and where one’s ability to think freely is limited to matters of faith and faith alone.

And there are those, of course, who hear the words of the fake preachers and the extreme preachers and say that they are the words of all ministers and they represent the ideas of all the church and are reflective of the Gospel in its basic intent. But the problem with these modern thinkers who proudly bear the title of atheist is that they do not offer a solution either. What they do offer is a non-religion religion, a belief system based on non-belief which is as irrational as those fundamentalists who offer a limited worldview or those prosperity gospel preachers who only wish to line their own pockets.

Now, as a chemist and one who believes in research, I have to think that all problems have solutions, even if the solution is not readily or easily obtained. The critical thing about solving problems is to not limit one’s self in finding solutions. Perhaps this is what Thomas Kuhn came to call a paradigm shift; a radical change in the view of the world because the evidence before you required a different view of the world. We limit our solutions because we have limited ourselves.

I have to imagine that it was that way with the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the Book of Jeremiah. They were in exile in Babylon and Jerusalem was far away in ruins and desolate. The Babylonians had taken the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest and then destroyed their homeland. It was as if the world had come to an end for them.

And then what does God, through Jeremiah, tell them to do? They were to build houses and plant gardens. They were to marry and have children. They were to make Babylon their home. I would have thought that many people would have felt that God would have wanted them to do just the opposite. After all, Jerusalem was their home; it was where the Temple was and it was where God lived.

But Jeremiah states that if things go well for Babylon, then things will go well for the people of Israel. Because somewhere along the line, God has not deserted them; He was right there with them. If I understand the context of these writings and the time of the exile, it is a time when the concept of God having a home is altered. To put God in the Temple and only the Temple limits God to the desires of the people; if the Temple is destroyed, then God is destroyed and the people lose. In a sense, that is why the Babylonians destroyed the Temple; it was to destroy the hopes of the people.

But, if God resides with the people, then the hopes cannot be destroyed. And if the people begin a new life with God in a new place then the hopes will be reborn and continue. It is exactly that which Paul is expressing to Timothy; that our lives are intertwined with God through Christ when we have accepted Christ.

Those who find solace in the words know that there is hope. It may be that they have encountered someone who gave them hope or there was a moment in their own lives when they saw a fleeting glimpse of home.

Ten lepers encountered Christ on the road between Galilee and Samaria. Obeying all protocols, they asked for mercy but from a distance. And Jesus granted them that mercy, cleansing them of their illness. And when they had all discovered that they were clean, one of them came back to say “thank you”. Now, I have written about this before (“Saying Thank You”) but I wondered what happened to other nine. Oh, I am sure they were cured of the disease but did they change their lives so that they wouldn’t get it again.

I don’t think it was necessarily that important that the one who did come back was a Samaritan. It could have been anyone who was an outcast in the society of that time. But Jesus chose a Samaritan to make a point, that the world that He was offering was a new world, a world with room for all and with a new vision. It was not a world limited by place, time, or ability. But it did require that each individual choose to begin a new life in Christ.

And there we are. We stare out at the world around us and we wonder. “What it will take to change the world; to remove the strife and violence; to make the world productive and the people healthy?” I don’t that the world will ever be free of differences; I don’t think that I would want to live in such a world. It is the differences that make this world but it is our inability to accept differences because our visions are limited that make this world what it is today. We want to know the answer but we may not necessarily know the question.

The answers to these questions are not found in some wacky, misguided computer that was programmed improperly when it was built. The answer is not found in some secret sold only in the late hours or early mornings of the day on an obscure shopping channel. They are most definitely not found in the words of a false shaman or preacher who would have you follow his interpretation of the Gospel. And they are not found in those who say there are no words to turn to.

There are words to turn to and they have been spoken over the years. The answers to the questions we ask are found in our heart but if our heart is empty, the answers have no meaning. For me, the foundation of life is found in Christ and it is through Christ that I can offer wisdom and thought, solace and comfort, and the promise of hope for a better tomorrow. If you are seeking the answers, if there is that emptiness in your heart, then Christ can be the answer. And if you have found Christ, then you are invited to share that discovery with others.

The question is and will always be, “will you follow me?” Only you know the answer to that very basic question.

Now Is The Time

This is the message that I presented on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 8.


When I first read today’s Scriptures, my first thoughts were of a saying that I thought came from the Sixties, “If not now, when?” But, in my preparation for today, I could not find any reference to a time, a place, or a person where this was ever said.

I did find a phrase by Rabbi Hillel, a noted Jewish rabbi and scholar of the 19th century. But it wasn’t the phrase that I was looking for and I wasn’t sure if it even contained the same idea that I originally had. And besides, when I looked at the Scriptures again, I saw that the words spoke of now being the time for action rather than simply a question of when action should take place.

Now is the time when people should be calling for justice in a world that seems to be unjust. Now is the time when the cries for justice will be answered. Now is the time when we should be building, not destroying. Now is the time when people listen to the words of their youth and their heart rather than follow the leadership of those who espouse myths and easy promises for a better life.

We claim to be a Christian nation. Much of the political rhetoric of today’s campaigns is phrased in the aura of Christianity. Yet, how much of what is said today is actually Christian? Consider how this Christian nation is responding to terrorism. Terrorism is a product and an outgrowth of poverty, homelessness, disease, and oppression. Yet, our response to terrorism is more violence, more repression. We ignore the very things that create terrorists in the first place.

As a Christian nation, we should be responding to the needs of the homeless, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet, like our predecessors, we say to Christ, “when did we see thee homeless or sick or in need?” Our faith today seems to be a faith of convenience. We want it there when we need it but we are unwilling to be there when Christ needs us.

It is no longer be a question of when Christ will come. The words of Jeremiah tell us that now is the time of Christ’s coming. Yet, too many preachers today proclaim a false prophecy and speak of the coming of Christ as a future event. They speak of Christ’s coming but ignore the world around them. They speak as if only a chosen few, chosen by them rather than God, will be rewarded. These preachers, not God, tell their followers which path to walk so that one can receive redemption and salvation. In a world that cries for justice, it is the loudest representatives of Christ who act like the ones who persecuted Christ?

The frightening thing in all of this is that people listen to these false preachers. They accept these false concepts of the Gospel because it is easier to do that than to do what we are called to do in the Gospel message. It is easier to blame the homeless, the sick, the oppressed for the problems of the world than it is to build houses, hospitals, and restore justice. It is easier to see a glory to come later than to work for glory now. It is easier today to have a faith of convenience and ease than it is to have a faith of belief and action. But, as Christ said to us today, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Those not willing to walk the path where Christ leads are not likely to find the true faith.

Paul tells Timothy to be wary of those who teach false myths. What would Paul say today about the preachers who preach hatred, division and oppression, intolerance and ignorance, all in the name of Christ? Paul’s counsel to Timothy is to hold to that faith of his youth, to the teachings that were true. Even in the roughest times, hold to the truth that is found in your heart. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, if one holds to the truth found in God through Christ, one will prevail.

And it will not be a long wait. We hear from the prophet Jeremiah that now is the time. Jeremiah tells us that God now has a new covenant, one cast not in stone but written on our hearts. It is a covenant to replace the one that brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Jeremiah, in this passage, speaks of the new covenant formed between the people of this world and God through Christ. But it is a covenant that requires that we participate.

Now, you will say that this is all well and good. But violence is sometimes the only response to violence. I will not deny that one has to defend one’s self but should we seek violence. Remember that on the night Jesus was arrested Peter took a sword in defense of Him and cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus. But Jesus commanded Peter to put down the sword and then healed the one who Peter struck.

You will say that we are only single individuals living in New York. You will say that it is hard enough to live and work here without having to take on the challenges of the world. Besides, nothing we do locally changes the global landscape. And, we have enough to do here at Tompkins Corners so we cannot worry about other things.

But what we do here today does have an impact on what happens elsewhere. Did we not, as a church, give a portion of our offering so that a person from this area could go to Mozambique and minister in the name of the Lord? Do not our birthday offerings go to relieve the homeless problem in this area? Do not our apportionments, along with those of other United Methodist Churches, expand the reach of this church beyond the boundaries of the corners and the county?

And do we not, as individuals, come in contact with countless others each day? Do we not, for brief moments each day, have the opportunity to show the presence of Christ in our lives?

The answer to all these questions is that we do. And each time we do something like that, we make a difference. Yest, it is a small difference but like the mustard seed of two weeks ago, from little differences come great things.

We must do as Paul counsels Timothy today. Hold fast to what you know is true. Hold fast to the counsel and guidance provided through the Holy Spirit. Continue doing what your knowledge of the scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit tell you is the right thing to do. We must listen to what is in our heart and in our mind, not what others might say. It is not an easy task, Paul tells Timothy, but it is the one task that receives the true rewards.

We know that this is the time. Maybe you have been hearing Christ calling to you, asking you to repent. Now is the time to answer Christ’s calling. We know that this is the time where we can fight for justice, where we can reach out and show the power and the presence of Christ as our Savior. Maybe now is the time for you, individually, and we, as the church collectively, to renew the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Maybe the Holy Spirit has been calling you, asking you to reach out to your neighbor and invite them to be with us next Sunday. Now is the time to answer that call.

Jeremiah tells the people that this is the time when God will renew His covenant with His people. Now is the time to put our names on that covenant.

What Gives You The Right?

This Sunday, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), I am again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 38: 1 – 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 35

After I posted this, I came across a reference to another song, highly appropriate for this message (I think) in the Riddell reference I cited.  The song is “The Not-So-Righteous Cafe” by Lorina Harding (link added on 5 April 2015).


One of my favorite songs from the early 70’s, if for no other reason than it very subtlety sneaks religion into a rock and roll song is “Signs” by the Five-Man Electrical Band. This band may be termed as a “one-hit wonder”, meaning that they had one song that was a hit and then nothing else.

“Signs” deals mainly with discrimination; the singer describes several situations in which he is excluded from something. The lyrics of the song were (and probably still are) a strong commentary about the social situation in the United States and Canada at that time. Each verse speaks of a particular episode in the singer’s life were there was some form of discrimination.

The first set of verses describes a sign in a window reading “Long haired freaky people” (meaning hippies) “need not apply” and the singer’s consequent confrontation with the store owner. The second set of verses describes the singer protesting being kept off of private property (by a sign reading “Anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight”). The third set of verses has him being excluded from a restaurant (by a sign reading “You got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat”). Throughout the song, the signs posted everywhere seem to be symbols to the singer of these exclusionist ideas.

The last set of verses, my favorite verse in the song, is a little different. It has the singer being accepted in a Christian church and worship service, despite not having any money to contribute to the collection or being “presentable”, thus arriving at the main theme of the song: that everyone should be accepted, regardless of lifestyle, financial standing, etc., tolerance being a main facet of the Christian religion. (I used the Wikipedia for the discussion of the song.) I will not say anything about how this view of the church may not be exactly true today.

But in connection with the reading for Job for today, I could not help but think of the second verse of this song, in which the singer cries out “what gives you the right to put a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in. If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kind of sinner.”

I sensed that same sort of tone in the words of Job as he sought out God and demanded the right to face God and ask why all the misfortune had befallen him. But, in the words that we read today, I heard the same tone from God as he told Job, “What gives you the right to say anything to me? What have you done that would qualify you to speak with me?” In the end Job will say that he is just thankful to have had the opportunity to speak to God, to have his say.

We live in a world where those who speak out are often the target of ridicule and derision. It is better to let things alone and not rock the boat than to seek solutions. It was the mantra of society during the 60’s and the fight for civil rights. It is the mantra of society when change is suggested. We saw it in the early words from Job in which his friends told him early and often that he had no business seeking God or demanding an explanation for the troubles that had befallen him. His friends, if you can really call them that even went so far as to suggest the Job, identified as a righteous man, must have done something wrong to incur the wrath of God. That attitude is still present today when we hear many people tell us that we should not demand from God nor question what God has done.

The problem is that there are too many people who see the church as the authority figure, holding on to a set of views that requires complete and total obedience. Now, to follow Jesus is to follow completely, without reservation or hesitation; this was part of the theme of last week’s Gospel message (Mark 10: 17 – 31).

It wasn’t that the young man in last week’s story held to the commandments but that he had to commit his life, body and soul, to following Jesus. Unwilling to give up his secular life, his riches and his wealth, he could not make that commitment.

It isn’t our commitment to Jesus that is the problem with today’s church; it is the church itself. It would seem that from the very beginning, it has been the power and the control of the church that has been at stake.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the time line of the Gospel message because there is always some difference between each of them in terms of what happened when during Jesus’ ministry. But whether it occurred early on in the ministry or towards the end, we are confronted with that power issue in today’s Gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus with the request that they be given seats of power in the new Kingdom. This, I would say, is only to be expected, if you see Jesus’ ministry and the new Kingdom as merely replacing the old power structure. And almost immediately after they make their request and Jesus points out exactly what they are asking for, the other disciples get literally bent out of shape.

How many times have we seen this in our churches today? I have seen church after church tear itself apart because of some non-theological power struggle. It may be over something trivial like how the towels for the church kitchen have to be ironed before being put away or it may be something major like who decides what music will be sung each Sunday. It may be over the nature of the worship service. It may be the ultimate in power sharing, letting some do what others have come to expect is their responsibility and their duty.

I have seen too many situations where one group’s view has been the dominant view for many years and it has driven off many people because their voice cannot be heard. And when it is heard, the new people in power moved quickly to shut off any dissent and opposition, taking the attitude that “we had to endure for a long time; now you must do the same.” And it can and has gone beyond the local church.

The Western church today is defined almost exclusively by the power and control that it demands. Throughout the history of the church and through today, the church has used its position of power and authority, to often to limit and control the people, not to set them free.

Even today, this power and authority has become abusive as many church leaders have attempted to teach the people to accept their word and their authority blindly and without question; to say that if their authority is questioned, it is an affront to God. As Michael Riddell in his book, Threshold of the Future (pages 67 – 68), points out, it is abusive for a person or persons to claim to speak the word of God and not allow that claim to be subject to the discernment of the wider community.

It is an abuse of power when decisions are made in secret by a small group who proclaim that such decisions are Christian in nature. It is an abuse of power when differences are demonized and departure from a prescribed moralistic lifestyle is portrayed as sinful or evil. It is an abuse of power when control is exercised to ensure the maintenance of the institution.

The result of these abuses has been that many people of integrity and faith have found themselves marginalized and dehumanized by the structures and the processes of the church. It is one thing to experience discrimination or contempt from the people by society’s rules (as perhaps outlined in “Signs”); it is an entirely different think when it is done in the name of God by people proclaiming themselves to be God’s people.

As Riddell states in his book, there are people who believe in a caring God, a creator but who are not interested in Jesus or the church. They express the idea that the church is designed to mess you up but setting the rules on how to live and telling you how to live. You end up repressing your real feelings and opinions simply to be accepted.

We are never going to get away from human authority but we have to recognize is that such authority has limits. The one thing the writer of Hebrews is telling us today is that those who were the high priests during the Gospel times (and those who have taken on such symbolic roles in today’s times) are no different from each one of us.

No matter what the title, any person who leads a community of believers must recognize that they are dealing with their own sins just as much as they are with others. And again, time after time, we see how this always seems to be that person’s undoing.

The writer of Hebrews will, in the coming verses, rather emphatically point out the difference between the permanent eternal nature of Jesus’ priesthood and the temporal, weak nature of the Levitical priesthood. The writer will tell us that the position of the priesthood in Jesus’ time was a matter of the law. We know from our own study of the Bible that these priests would make the law unchangeable and any threat to the law would be seen as a threat to them. That is why they always seemingly opposed what Jesus was doing in his ministry. Their disagreement with Jesus came about because they saw His ministry and His approach as a direct threat to their power and their stature. They could not imagine doing what Jesus suggested that the leaders of the new Kingdom had to do, to first be servants of the people.

Going back to the comments by Michael Riddell, we can see a situation where the future of the church will be determined by how the people, both in the establishment and outside the establishment, view their own power and authority. Do those inside the establishment have the right to decide what is best for the church? Or is it a matter for all the people to decide? One has to be careful on how one views this idea.

You cannot preach the Gospel through democracy but your church, being a body of people, can be a democracy. You may wish to institute new forms of worship but it must be done with an understanding that such new forms are not going to take on the patina of authority themselves.

We need to hear the words from Job in a new light, not just the expressions of a bitter man. Job’s story is not a traditional telling of the relationship between man and God. The writer William Safire viewed the encounter of Job and God as a victory for Job, because Job called God to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It was the model for the things that Gandhi, King, and Andrei Sakharov would accomplish. Safire concluded that injustice in any form need not be accepted; rather, justice must be pursued and established authority be confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

The words of Job are the words of the people of the church, who seek the hope and justice and righteousness that the Gospel promises. The words of Job are the words of a people who see a monolithic power structure that does not respond to the needy and the poor, the outcast and forgotten.

It is important that we see how Jesus worked against the traditional power structures of His day. Jesus respected the Scriptures, perhaps more than did those who worked against Him and those who would hold the Scriptures as inflexible and unviable today. But Jesus went far beyond the tradition that was the Scripture; He goes deep into the heart in order to show what lies behind the tradition. This is neither a liberal approach (in terms of hanging loose from Scripture) nor is it a conservative approach (justifying current religious practice through the use of Scripture). Just as Job presented an alternative view to the relationship between man and God, Jesus’ approach is a radically new approach. It seeks to return to the roots of tradition and draw attention to the intent of God concerning humanity.

The true value of the Scripture is that it provides a means or an access to the heart of faith. No matter how we may view the church community today, no matter how angry we are with the powers that be, as long as the Scripture is there, we have the opportunity to change the church and our own very being from being regulated, restrictive, and objective to generative, reforming, and life-giving.

That is why we come to the table today. Our access is not limited by who we are or what we do; no outside authority can say to us, “go away, you are not wanted here.” We cannot be denied access because someone doesn’t like the length of our hair or the color of our skin or the nature of our lifestyle. We are reminded as we gather at the table today that Jesus died for us so that we may live.

Our right to come to this table is God’s grace, not human authority. All we must do in order to sit at this table today is acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. And when we leave this table today, when we go out into the world, we do not have the right to tell others how to live just because we say we are Christians. What we do have is the obligation and the responsibility to lead a life that shows Christ and is of Christ.

The Evidence Before You

This is a sermon that I gave on October 26, 2003,for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. 


If one thing has surprised me over the years that I have been a lay speaker, it is that more people have not asked about the possible conflict between being a chemist and being a preacher. I do know that at least one university search committee was not comfortable with my stated plans of pursuing a second career in the ministry while maintaining a career in chemical education. And at least one person openly rejoiced that I was in the pulpit. But he figured that I would somehow give scientific credence to the Biblical story of creation and help lead the fight to remove the teaching of evolution from the local schools.

In both cases, those involved on the other side failed to see that it was possible to have scientific beliefs while at the same time maintaining a strong faith in God. The two are not mutually inclusive; one does not determine the other. Science is based on what you see and the information developed from what you see; faith is about what is in your heart and what you believe. Granted, if you believe that God created the world in seven days, you will have a hard time with the physical evidence that suggests otherwise. But if you feel that the story of creation in the Bible was for the purpose of explaining why we are here in the first place, then there is no conflict. And if you put the story into the time frame and the fact that it was first told to people who knew little of the world beyond the horizon, then there is also no conflict between the Bible and science

The one thing that no cosmologist has ever determined is how the “Big Bang”, the basic notion about how the universe started, itself was started. In other words, we can determine how the universe was started but not who started it or why. And it will be a very long time before we can. But that is the point. We can determine what God did but never can we determine why He did it. God told Job as much last week and reaffirms it this week.

But, even today, with an open mind, we still find people who want to close their minds to other possibilities. We find people who twist and turn empirical data simply in a vain attempt to prove non-scientific theories about creation and the universe.

There is, in the scientific community, a group that awards prizes to people for their novel, if nothing else, ideas. In 2001 the IgNoble Prize in astrophysics was awarded to Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. (ASTROPHYSICSDr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. [REFERENCE: The March 31, 2001 television and Internet broadcast of the “Jack Van Impe Presents” program (at about the 12 minute mark).] It should be noted that the particular broadcast is no longer available.)  I will leave it to you to determine if a Christian fundamentalist and evangelist has the technical qualification to identify and characterize a phenomena that has yet to be determined by even the most resolute of astrophysicists.

Now, before anyone should think that I will limit this discourse to a select few who use the Bible to justify or create scientific discoveries, I also have some disdain, if not disbelief, in those who would use science to justify the Bible.

There is a book entitled “The Passover Plot”. The synopsis of this book is that Jesus was a fact and that He faked His death on the cross. The author builds a case to suggest that Jesus manipulated everything to fool the people. Even the climatic scene on Calvary, when Jesus breathes His last, is faked.

In John 19:28 we read

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said “I thirst!” Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. (John 19: 28 – 30)

To the author of “The Passover Plot” this cry of thirst was a signal from Jesus to his disciples to give Him a drug that would make him pass out. I am not sure that were I seeking to create such a conspiracy that I would have let it go that far, especially knowing that crucifixion was the most hideous torture ever developed. But if you believe that the resurrection could not have happened, because rational science does allow for such things, then it is a perfectly reasonable explanation.

More recently, the whole concept of God and the existence of God has come into play. We heard the questions following September 11th; we have heard the questions every time a suicide bomber sets off a bomb in the Middle East. How can there be a God if there is such evil or injustice in the world today. If God is a loving God, how can He allow hatred and intolerance to exist in the world today?

These are questions that mankind has been asking ever since the book of Job was written. The author Lee Strobel has written a very interesting book, entitled “The Case for Faith” and he identifies eight questions that anyone seeking to define their faith must consider:

  • If there’s a loving god, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
  • If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they are true?
  • If God really created the universe, why does the persuasive evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
  • If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says He did?
  • If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of Him?
  • If God cares about the people He created, how could He consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about Him?
  • If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
  • If I’m still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian? (The Case of Faith – Lee Strobel)

These are objections well founded in our attempts to put the Bible in a rational world. And it would make a very interesting series to look at and work on; but time works against that thought at the moment. But as I read the book and looked at the questions, I had to ask myself, “where is mankind in the equation?” Why, if we believe that God gave us the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong, then why do we blame God for the troubles of the world? Where do we fit into the whole thing? If it is all God’s fault, then there is nothing we can do and nothing we do will change things. But if we are God’s representatives on earth, then we are at least partially responsible for whatever might take place on this earth.

Those who seek to blame God for everything, all the cruelty, intolerance, hatred, and evil forget that God gives us the opportunity to work against those forces. And God calls on us to find Him amidst all that is this world.

The ultimate questions are about God and who God is. Job understood that God was a loving God who would not tolerate injustice or evil and all he (Job) wanted was an opportunity to meet God. But there are those, especially in the fundamentalist branches of the major religions of the world today, who do not want us to find God. They do not want us to seek God. The 1999 IgNoble Prize in Science Education was given to the Kansas State Board of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education, for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution any more than they should believe in Newton’s theory of gravitation, Faraday’s and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur’s theory that germs cause disease.

Those on the Kansas Board of Education were openly fundamentalist Christians. Their rationales for dropping Darwinian evolution from the high school science curriculum was that it was false teaching and thus, not appropriate for students to learn. Their thoughts were also that, since alternative theories of evolution could not be taught in science, no theories should be taught. Of course, what they considered an alternative theory of evolution is not an alternative theory, at least, from a scientific standpoint and that is what the courts have repeatedly ruled.

Though the ruling, at least in Kansas, was reversed it still bothers me. It bothers me because it says that Christians do not want free inquiry into the nature of the world. Instead of seeking the truth, we are to accept what a select few individuals feel is appropriate. We are seeing many more examples, even in the United Methodist Church, of individuals seeking to limit what is considered the truth.

But finding what the truth is should be our primary goal. In John 8: 32 Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is the truth that will set us free, free from sin and death. It is the truth that sets us free to work against intolerance, war, poverty, and physical death.

This place, this sanctuary should be a place where the truth is manifested in the way we treat people, both those who are members of this community and those outside this community’s boundaries. We should be able to say to all who come to this place that they are welcome. Those who come into this sanctuary should know that their thoughts are welcome and that we want them to help as we seek to reach our common goals.

I have always thought that was the purpose of the Gospel. Jesus said to all that society was not to be controlled by a few or that the rules of society would be so restrictive that creativity and growth were impossible.

A church that seeks to limit the creativity of its members, a church that seeks to govern by a strict interpretation of the rules is one doomed to die. It will not be a quick death but rather a slow and painful one. It will be a death that comes because there is no growth.

While many churches would say that they are places of solace and hope, they are also places that are closed to society. They are churches that say, “We do not want society to disturb our quiet and solace; we do not want to be reminded of the problems of the world”. These churches say, “We do not want to share what we have with those who do not have”. This too is a church that will die; it will die because the Gospel cannot live in such an environment.

In Jeremiah 31: 8, Jeremiah described the community that God gathered to Israel, “among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company.” Only in God’s kingdom will we find that the most vulnerable are considered “great company.” In God’s community, all are welcomed and included, even and especially the powerless.

The Gospel reading for today also reflects God’s attention to the vulnerable. Bartimaeus calls upon Jesus to heal him, insisting even though “many sternly ordered him to be quiet. (Mark 10: 48)  His persistence is rewarded: Jesus asks what he wants. “My teacher, let me see again” is his only request. This brief story is in the Gospels to remind us of what a disciple is like. He knows that he is blind and that he wants to see. Unlike the rich young ruler who had everything but was unwilling to give it all up, he is willing to follow Jesus. (From “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners – September/October 2003)

We have marginalized the poor, the impoverished. We have said to those on the outside that they cannot come in. Those that Jesus healed were marginalized by society, cast aside and forgotten. It does not matter that we think of Jesus’ healing as miracles or by some unexplained medicine that He learned somewhere.

Whichever explanation we personally accept limits our vision. And if there is one thing that we must not do, it is limit our vision. For if we limit our vision then we are not able to bring the Gospel to anyone, including ourselves.

If we limit what it is we can do, we cannot do much. And that brings us to the most basic question of all. What type of church do we want Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church to be? It is a question that must be answered and it must be answered quickly.

Whether you believe that the Bible is the complete and only answer or that you believe that everything can be explained by a rationale and scientific process, it is important that you believe. And it is important that you believe that God loved you so much that He would send His only son so that whosoever believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.

The blind man had faith and he saw. John Newton was blind to the evils of the world until he met Jesus Christ in the middle of the Atlantic. But when he met Christ his life changed. John Wesley came to know that there was a Holy Spirit and that through the power of the Spirit was able to create a movement that changed the world.

The evidence before us tells us that faith will endure. Now we must ask ourselves if we have the faith of the blind man. Will we be able to see the future or will we remain blind?