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).

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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.

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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. 

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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?

 


Are We Impatient or Just Waiting?


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.

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It is now just over 82 days until January 1, 2000 and the time when we will see if all the Y2K bug fixes work. In the meantime, what are we going to do? Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot that we can do at this point. Those of us who own computers have already made the appropriate checks and those of us who work where traditional main-frame computers are involved are undergoing the last checks to make sure that everything is working okay. Of course, it could be that we have done nothing to this point, preferring to wait until next January to see what will happen.

Whatever our own personal actions are, the one thing that we have to realize is that we have to wait until January to see if everyone’s fix is going to work in accord with all the other fixes. I think the one thing that most people fear is not what will happen to one computer but what will happen to a group of computers that are working together? It could be that a problem with one computer would cause unforeseen problems that cannot be imagined.

The situation that we have in the Old and New Testament readings for today is about waiting, waiting for God. In the Old Testament reading, the people of Israel are waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain after having given them the Ten Commandments. The people of Israel during Jesus’ time are waiting for the Messiah to return and deliver them from the oppression of the Roman empire.

It is interesting to note that the Israelites knew that they were not to worship other gods, yet their first instinct when Moses was not there was to build the golden calf, reminiscent of their days in Egypt. I think that our society is like that today, looking for tangible proof of the existence of God, not willing to go by the statement that He exists.

I think that the people that Jesus spoke of being invited to the wedding feast, also the people of Israel, knew of the existence of God. But, while not needing any proof of His existence, they were not ready or willing to come when called, preferring to come on their own accord.

It is easy to see both of these viewpoints around us today. In today’s technological society, we tend to view life in terms of what we are capable of doing. This in turn drives God from the center of our life, putting on the edges when the only time we need him is when we are in trouble. If we do not have something tangible in front of us, then we are apt not to think about it. To the Israelites in the wilderness, having come from a society where the worship of gods required idols, it was difficult to worship a God who demanded no idols.

But such a one-to-one relationship, a relationship between you and God, is possible. That is the one change that Jesus brought into the picture. No longer was God some strange entity, existing only as fire, smoke, and thunder but as someone we could come to know. But it is a relationship that cannot wait for a given time; it is one that must happen know. Yes, the invitation is always there and we can accept it any time but we can never be sure if we will be to accept the invitation at another time.

That invitation is given to all that hear it. Those who knew God in Jesus’ time were not ready to hear the message of salvation and grace that Jesus was telling. But others were and they were the ones invited. I was personally bothered for a while about the line in the Gospel passage for today about the invitee to the wedding thrown out because he did not have his wedding clothes on. Does this mean that not everyone will get into heaven? This is in direct contradiction to everything else.

One assumption made about this parable is that it was the custom for the host to provide the guests with the appropriate wedding garments. Since, in this case, the people were coming directly off the street, this would have been especially true. So the failure of the man to take advantage of the new garments would have been an insult to the person providing the garments. I think that it is a subtle reminder that having come to Christ, having been invited to join Him, that there has to be a change in what we do and how we act.

Paul writes to the Philippians today, in part to settle a dispute between members of the church in Philippia but more directly to continue provide the direction that the leaders and members of the church are looking for.

Paul speaks of the peace of God. This is not merely some psychological state of mind but is the true peace and inner tranquility that comes when you know that your sins have been forgiven; when all your cares are given over to God. He also encourages us, through this passage, to keep in mind those things that come from knowing Christ as our Savior. It is by keeping those things in mind that one is enabled to put them into practice. If everything listed in verses 8 – 9 from the passage from Philippians

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

are held in one’s heart, then a life of moral and spiritual excellence will result.

Paul’s exhortation to “think about such things” is followed by the exhortation to “put into practice.” I have always said that Wesley encourages us, having coming to Christ, to work towards a more perfect life. We can never be expected to have a perfect life but we can seek to have a life that is more like Christ each day and which shows the world who Christ was.

The other night someone asked me what the difference between being a United Methodist and any other Protestant religion was. After all, if the only requirement for being saved is that you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior what difference is there between being a Methodist and being a Baptist or a Lutheran? Another difference is the manner in which we do communion.

The United Methodist Church celebrates an open communion, one in which all are invited to partake. We do not check your credentials to see if you are eligible for your decision to partake is one that you make with God and Christ. Some churches hold a closed communion, offering it only to you if you are of that faith or that particular church community. That is their right, but it is not something that we, as United Methodists, feel is appropriate. The invitation to the banquet in the Gospel reading today was for all those there, not just for the original invitees.

All that is asked is that you come to the table with an open heart, having allowed Christ to come in. And having come to Christ, will you be wearing the new clothes of the wedding feast? Will others see in you, through your thoughts, words, and deeds, the existence of the Christ in your life? As Paul exhorts the Philippians so also does he exhort us to live a life as an example of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews in chapter 8, verses 7 through 11, speaks of the relationship that we can have with Christ.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.

No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8: 7 – 12)

Are you waiting for Christ to come? Are you like the invitees to the wedding banquet expecting the invitation to come at another time? The invitation to Christ does not have a timetable nor should one turn down the invitation when it is offered. It is always been said that you will get many invitations but can you be sure that you can turn down the one being made today?

Are you impatient, wanting to see proof of Christ in today’s world? If you are impatient, then now is the time to come to Christ. If you are waiting for Christ to return, He is here for you today.

Rules For Living


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.

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Many years ago, I was a football official. It was something I enjoyed doing and, up until the proverbial career ending knee injury, one with a promising future of college games.

Like all football officials I started off with the Saturday morning elementary and junior high games. As my Dad, a veteran official in his own right, once told me, “You do these games to see things and make calls that you will never make at the high school and college level.” It was also at that level that the four most common words spoken by an official were “This isn’t Sunday, Coach!”

You see, most coaches at the lower levels try to use what they see the pros doing on Sunday when they are coaching their kids to play on Saturday. They ignore the fact that the kids they coach are not at the same physical level as the pros and that the rules for play on Sunday are dramatically different from the rules on Friday night and Saturday morning. And many times, the coaches try to coach as they were coached many years ago without trying to find out what is now legal and proper technique.

What people, coaches, fans and parents alike, forget is that the rules of the game are there for a purpose. And when you attempt to circumvent the rules or not even bother to learn the rules, problems arise.

Be it football, baseball, or just daily living, we have to have a set of rules by which we can live and be successful. We must remember that we have rules not to prevent life but rather to help life.

When the Israelites first left Egypt and began the long journey through the wilderness, they were simply a collection of people. That all changed when they came to Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites changed from a collection of people into a nation established with God as King and a covenant or treaty to govern their lives by. The Ten Commandments represent the covenant entered into by the people of Israel with God and represent a set of rules that reflect the relationship between God and themselves.

We see this relationship clearly defined when we look at the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments define the relationship the people will have with God. By extension this is a statement of the relationship each of us has with God as well. The last seven commandments define our relationship with others. What we must understand clearly is that our relationship with God comes before our relationship with others but that neither relationship works without the other. If we fail to realize this or if we try to reverse the order of the commandments, if we put our interests before our relationship with God, then there will be trouble.

The parable from the Gospel reading for today is an example of that outcome. The owner of the vineyard first sends his representative and then his son to check on the status and well being of his vineyard. The workers of the vineyard ignored the representatives and killed the son, thinking that in doing so they would gain the vineyard for themselves. But the ownership of the property doesn’t go to someone who gains it by illegal or immoral means and trouble comes to those who seek action in such a manner.

Jesus told this parable as He was preparing for His own death on the cross. It was a story to remind the disciples that the vineyard owner was God and that the vineyard was this earth. Killing the Son of God would in no way give the workers rights to the property.

Jesus simply pointed out that you could not forget one’s relationship with God, which the people of that time had done.

In Paul’s letter, we hear Paul boasting that if anyone could claim sufficiency through the law it was he. For he was raised in the law and he knew the law and he did everything in his power to uphold and keep the law. But the law that Paul tried to keep was the law of man designed to enforce the rules of living. And such law will always be written or made in such a way as to favor the one making the law. As Paul points out, simply holding to the law, a man-made instrument, cannot and will not guarantee everlasting life.

More than once Paul reminds us of this point, of the need to have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, of holding to the relationship with God first. We are also reminded that the Covenant established on the mountain in the Sinai desert also included a relationship with others.

The rules for living have been laid out before us. They are not meant to be complex but rather a simple statement of the priorities of daily lives. When we put ourselves and how we view the relationships we have with others before our relationship with God, we cannot find a balance in our lives.

In a day when we seek to find a balance in our lives, when we seek to find a peace in daily living and a way to get through each day, it is nice to know that a set of rules, rules for living, does exist.

Our Best Interests


This Sunday I am returning to New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church).  I was there on October 23, 2005 (“What Is The Promise?”), October 8, 2006 (“What Do We Say?”), and October 22, 2006 (““What Will You Ask For?”)

The service starts at 10:30.  The Scriptures for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.

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It has been said that the comedian W. C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. When he was asked why he was doing so, he replied that he was looking for loopholes. And while the story in itself may be apocryphal, it speaks to our own thoughts about the Bible and its role in our lives.

When I began preparing this sermon, I saw the phrase in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you should not look to your own interests but to the interests of others as well (verse 4). It doesn’t matter if you read it from a traditional translation, a more modern one, such as The Message (which states “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”), or even from the Cotton Patch Gospel (“Never act competitively or for self-praise, but with humbleness esteem others as above yourselves. Don’t confine yourselves to your own interests, but seek the welfare of others.”) The words tell us that if we call ourselves Christians then our interests cannot take precedence over the interests of others. Yet, that is how Christianity is often portrayed.

These are critical times for believers. This is not about family values, moral decay, or the ability to worship your faith openly and without repercussion. This is about a difference between one’s view of faith and its prophetic vision. This is about the differences between a religion which promises easy certainty with absolutes and “black-and-white” issues and a religion the prompts a deeper reflection and a call to action. Those who promise easy certainty externalize their anxieties, fears, and insecurities, who seek to control others through violence and restriction; those who seek a deeper reflection and a call to action speak of independent thought, personal reflection, self-criticism, renewal, reformation and revival.

We see this in the exchange between the chief priests and elders with Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. Throughout the Gospel the majority of priests, elders, scribes, and other members of the establishment constantly questioned Jesus about His authority. They, the appointed representatives of God on earth, constantly sought to undermine Jesus in whatever He sought to do.

Now, as God’s representatives on earth, perhaps they had a right to do so. As it so clearly states in the Gospel, we have to be on guard against those who would preach in the name of God but yet be representatives of the Evil One. But the Pharisees, the scribes and the elders who questioned Jesus weren’t interested in determining the validity of His ministry; they were only interested in preserving their own power and status.

Early in my own faith development, growing up in the Deep South during the 50’s and 60’s, I saw many who call themselves Children of God yet whose words and actions were like those whom John the Baptist called vipers and hypocrites. Even today, when so much is made of the religion or the lack thereof of our leaders, it isn’t about true belief but who shall be in control and who shall be in power when the shouting is done.

Let’s face it. The establishment was very uncomfortable with His ministry. They objected to the idea of bringing sinners into the temple, of His associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, of healing the sick on the Sabbath. Their view of religion focused on those who really had no need for religion. Everything Jesus did worked against everything they stood for and worked to maintain.

The Philippian church was a culturally diverse church. In his letter, Paul specifically mentions an Asian, a Greek, and a Roman citizen; three different individuals representing three different races, three different social ranks, and probably each with a different religious loyalty before they each encountered Christ. Just as Jesus did in Jerusalem where he gathered all the people that the establishment did not want in the Temple, the church in Philippi broke the rules of society and class.

Somewhere in the history of the church, however, we lost that notion. I doubt that many people today understand that the label of Methodist was once a pejorative. We got our name because of the methodical way that John and Charles Wesley and their college friends went about their devotions and lives. But it quickly became the label for a trouble-maker and a revolutionary.

Even today, there are too many people who hold onto the view that church is a time and a place on Sunday. To borrow a phrase that is often associated with Las Vegas, many people are quite happy if what is said in the pulpit stays in the pulpit. Don’t ever challenge the people to think of church as something more than a social gathering on Sunday morning.

While Wesley believed that the churches primary mission was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”, he also understood that those words were meaningless without action. The United Methodist Church began because it spoke out against the direction society was taken. The people of the early Methodist movement spoke out against the callousness of society in putting its own interests above the needs of all its members. And the people of the early Methodist movement did more than just speak out; they put their words into action.

The early Methodist societies began what we would call a credit union to help people from being thrown into debtor’s prison. Others started job training programs. They started schools for children on Sunday because that was the only day that children were not working. They set up free health clinics because the poor and lower classes had no health care system.

But many people of Wesley’s time balked at this call; they barred Wesley and those who followed him from preaching in the established churches. And when the movement started building its own churches, it banned the building of those churches. If you get a chance, go to John Street United Methodist Church and read its history; it began as a meeting house because the established church of New York refused to allow Methodists to have their own church. To do what Wesley preached was simply too much for many people to take. To risk what you have for others, to give so that others would not suffer was simply too much to ask. But their actions were nothing new.

Consider the Israelites in their passage from Egypt to the Promised Land. As they left Egypt, they complained that they were going to die at the hands of the Egyptian army in the desert by the Red Sea. Last week, they complained about the lack of bread and meat; this week they complained about the lack of drinking water. It is quite easy to understand these complaints.

To the people on the Exodus, there was a certain degree of safety and security in their lives as slaves in Egypt. Their needs were met, that is certain. But their lives were controlled by others. In remembering the security and safety of their lives in Egypt, the Israelites forgot the harshness of that life. They forgot that they had called out to God to be saved. Each step on the journey, the people of Israel complained; each step of the way they forgot what God had done for them. They forgot how God defeated the Egyptian army in the mud and slop of the Red Sea. And while they cried out for food, they forgot that God had fed them with manna and quail. This week they will cry out for water, lamenting a life in slavery where water was plentiful. Yet God will provide the water they need.

Each passage in Exodus is going to mark how the Israelites put their own interests above all else, even in view of what God did for them. And yet, God never stopped. He protected them; He fed them; He gave them fresh water. And in the end, when they had left Him, He sent His Son to take on the life of a servant and rescue them once again.

If you are following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to a place you don’t even know exists, it is only natural that you will think of your own self-interests first. You want to make sure that your own basic needs are met and you want to feel safe and secure. To follow a cloud by day and fire by night and to only hear a voice calling out from the cloud doesn’t give one much piece of mind or security. But there is a problem when your interests take precedence over the interests of others. The church today is too much like the church of John Wesley’s time. It is more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival of God’s children.

John Wesley and others called this “lukewarm Christianity.” If the church is blind to the needs of the people outside the walls of the church, then it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing; it may be making disciples of the people but it is not living the Gospel message that Christ proclaimed.

The one hard lesson that Wesley learned was that you can’t put your interests above that of others. His failure as a missionary in Georgia followed his failures in England. His failures were not failures to reach out but failures to find peace and comfort in God. They were failures because he was putting his own interests before the interests of the Lord.

But when he accepted the Lord as his Savior, on that night that we have come to know as “Aldersgate”, his view changed. And when his view changed, the nature and the power of the Methodist movement changed.

The church today is failing, just as it was failing in Wesley’s day and just as it was failing in the days before Christ began His ministry. It is failing because it is putting its own interests before that of God. It is failing because it fears that what is happening outside the walls of the church will somehow creep inside the church and disturb or destroy the peace and tranquility they seek.

But as the church today builds walls to protect its sanctuary with its peace and quiet, it prevents those who seek that peace from coming in. As it builds the walls around the church, it seeks to trap God inside, preventing God from reaching out to the people who seek His touch and presence.

Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But trapped inside the walls of their churches, many people cannot see how to do this. They see their members leaving and they don’t understand why others are not coming to their church. So they have rewritten the Gospel message. They offer a message which speaks to an individual’s interests, not the interests of God. It is a message designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

But you cannot build a church around some numerical bottom line; it must be based on the spirit that infuses people. As Jim Wallis noted in his recent book, “The Great Awakening”, people are searching for something to be the engine that drives their passion for justice and a solid foundation for their lives. They want a faith that they can live, a faith that is committed to the Gospel message. It is interesting how the word “evangelical” has been transformed over the years. But it once meant to speak of the Good News, of the Gospel message of Christ.

If you have been saved, if you have proclaimed to the world that Jesus Christ is your personal Savior then you have the duty to go out into the world and show people what he has done. But people will not hear the words that you speak if they are hungry, homeless, sick, naked, or suppressed by an indifferent society.

Jesus asked the elders a question about two sons. When asked to go to work for their father, the older son say that he would but didn’t. The younger son refused but ended up working. Each son had his own interests but which one put the interests of God first?

We have a chance today to be that second son instead of continuing as the first. We have a chance to put the interests of others before our own. How will we make this church the church that Wesley wanted, how will we make the church of the 21st century emulate the first churches, the house churches of the 1st and 2nd century? How will we make this place a reminder of who Christ was and how will we make it a place where people can find a safe haven in a world full of turmoil and trouble?

We start by opening our hearts so that Christ can come in. Then we let the Holy Spirit come in. Then we begin doing what God asks us to do. The financial crisis that has dominated our lives for the past week affects more than a select few individuals on Wall Crisis. It is a financial crisis that has been affecting people for several years. Right now, there are no homeless shelters for homeless women and homeless families in Newburgh; the only shelter in Newburgh for homeless men operates during the winter months. Newburgh Ministries was created to find a solution to this problem. Perhaps He is asking you take part in the Newburgh Ministries. They can be reached through their web site – http://www.newburghministry.org/.

The food banks in this area are already pushed to the limit and I know that it is difficult to ask to contribute more. But often times, it is not asking you to contribute more but rather you asking your neighbors to contribute more.

It may not seem that the simple act of asking your neighbor to help with the food bank will end world-wide hungry. It probably won’t but in the simple act of involving someone else to act in faith will.

It Only Takes A Spark

If you seek to solve problems on your own, the problems will not be solved. But if you open your heart to Christ and let the power of the Holy Spirit guide and direct you, you will not be alone and you will not be acting in your own interests but in the interests of God and the community that we live in. This is what it is all about; this is in our best interests.

The Aha! Moment


This is a sermon that I gave on October 29, 2000 for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52.  I am posting it because of what I am thinking about writing for this weekend.

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In every learning opportunity, there comes a time when you realize that you have learned something. You have been trying to learn something and it hasn’t been easy. But suddenly, without any forewarning, you find that you understand perfectly clear what it is that you are trying to learn. And the funny thing about it is that after you understand this new concept, it seems so simple and clear that you wonder why it seemed to hard in the first place. That moment of learning is known as the AHA moment.

It is really hard to define this moment in any other terms simply because the time and place are determined by the characteristics of the learner and what may be that moment for one will not be the same for another.

It is the same with our relationship with God. Job’s encounter with God, as we read in today’s Old Testament reading, is an example of such a moment. As Job admits in the Old Testament reading for today, before he met God, he had only heard of God. His knowledge was second hand at best but after his encounter, he knew of God because he had come to know him first-hand.

When we have a first-hand knowledge of God, our lives change. We only have to remember what it was that John Wesley said after that memorable night at the Aldersgate Chapel to understand that change. Before Aldersgate, Wesley knowledge of God and the path that he was to take had been gained through rigorous study and self-discipline.

When John Wesley and his brother Charles first came to America in the 1736 as missionaries, it was with a great amount of joy and expectation. For now they had the opportunity to show that what they had been saying along would work. No longer would they have to put up with their detractors making fun of this Methodism of theirs.

But when it was all over, their mission was a failure and both brothers returned to England. The feeling of failure was so great that Charles was literally on his deathbed. Prepared as he and his brother were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. But you see, when you put your faith, as it were, solely in what you have heard or read about Jesus, it is impossible to trust in Him. Trust is only possible when you have that first-hand knowledge.

Only when John Wesley let Jesus into his life, that moment know to us as the Aldersgate moment, could he write

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Only when he accepted Christ as his personal Savior did John Wesley understand the direction his life was to take. By turning his life over to Christ, Wesley gained the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible.

That moment in life may be a subtle one, as it was for Jesus. Or it may be a dramatic one as it was for Paul on the road to Damascus. But however it occurs, it will change your life. That it changed Bartimaeus’ life is why his story is in the Gospel of Mark. It has been suggested that because Bartimaeus is named in this Gospel he did more than simply follow Jesus into Jericho but rather became a disciple of note later.

There will come a time when you might, if you haven’t already done so, have that encounter with Jesus. It is certain that there are others who will have an encounter of their own. How they come to that moment is not know to us at this time, nor it is certain that their moment will be like anything that we have encountered in our own lives. But one thing is certain, for each of us to know God as did Job, on that first-hand basis, it will be because we have allowed Jesus to come into our hearts.

It has to be Jesus and it cannot be anyone else. The point of the passage from Hebrews that we read today is that only Jesus can be the “high priest” who can intercede on our behalf before God. The point being made in this passage is that all other priests are not capable of taking on the task.

But how does one get to know Jesus? This is the question that we must ask of ourselves this day. For if there is one person in the world who has never known or heard of Jesus, it is impossible for them to come even close to a first-hand knowledge. If I may be permitted to use a chemistry analogy, Mendeleev, the developer of the “modern” periodic table was able to predict the existence of certain elements because of the gaps left in the periodic table. But he could not predict the existence of what were called the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, xenon, krypton, and radon) because there was no information on which to predict their existence. If there is nothing available upon which to make a prediction, you cannot make a prediction.

If there is no way to know of Jesus, then there is no way one can come to know Jesus. And my friends, that is exactly why we are here. So that people will know that Jesus is here in this world and in this time.

The question is how we can let others know. That is one reason why I put the note in the bulletin about reactivating “The Lamplighter.” If we are to bring the newsletter back, and we do have the resources to do so, will we have enough people to mail it to so that we can get a bulk mailing permit? It is my understanding that there must be at least two hundred people for us to get that permit. And even if everyone who is a member or a constituent member were to get one newsletter each, that would only be 113 persons on the mailing list. But that is not a practical letter because of the numerous duplicate addresses. If we are to reactivate the church newsletter, and it is my hope that we do, we will have to come up with a total of 200 addresses.

Another way that we can let people know that Walker Valley is alive and doing well is to let those who are not here today know that they are missed. Right now, we might say that we wonder where someone is but how many people actually call them and let them know that they are missed. Perhaps a call is not warranted; but a note surely is.

I know of some that are doing this and I encourage them to continue. I also encourage each of you to make a few calls. If you need someone’s number, call Sandee Scheel or me. If you feel that I need to call them or visit with them, I will do what I can. But remember the first contact must come from you, not me. This is not because I don’t have the time or the energy; nor is it because I have only a 1/4-time position. It is because the most successful way of getting people to know that Jesus is real comes when someone from the congregation makes the first call.

Why go to all of this trouble? Why take time out of our busy schedule to help someone else, when they may not want to be helped? Because, in the end, when we help one person, then all the effort that was made will have been worth it. No matter when the moment comes or how it comes, when someone has an encounter with Jesus, it changes their lives forever.

Job’s perseverance enabled him to gain rewards he never would have imagined. Remember that at the end of the book of Job, after Job had come to know God on a first-hand and he prayed for his friends, he received more than he had lost. Bartimaeus’ life changed forever after he gained his vision.

There is someone looking for that moment when life changes for them. Are we going to be in a position where we can enable them to have that moment? That is my question for you this morning.

The Lost Generation


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2007. (This has been edited since it was first posted.)
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It was a time tempered by the First World War and the disillusionment that came with war. It was the time between World War I and World War II when a group of American writers felt that America had lost its identity and become, in their words, the place to go to start a business. It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. America was no longer a place where creativity was valued more than materialism. Authors and artists such as T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway sought the meaning of life against a backdrop of the First World War. They became known as “the lost generation”. (See http://ok.essortment.com/whatlostgenera_nkj.htm and http://users.rowan.edu/~lindman/lost_generation.html for additional information)

As the fifties began, another generation of writers and authors took their place. Jack Kerouac called it “the beat generation”. It’s not immediately obvious why he chose that term but it was not because of the music of that time. Perhaps it was because the word “lost” can be used to describe defeat, that he coined the term. It quickly became slang for “exhausted” or “beat down”. Still, its motives were the same as those who affirmed membership in the lost generation. There was a rejection of middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest. (See http://www.rooknet.com/beatpage/index.html or http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/page.jsp?what=LostBeatHip for additional information)

As one born just as the fifties were beginning, I did not participate in either of these generational shifts in culture and time. Rather, my generation benefited from the works of these two generations. Of course my generation also was faced with the civil rights movement at its peak and the Viet Nam war at its loudest. Society was showing its worst at a time when it wanted its best. It seemed clear to me that my future was pretty well going to be determined by what I choose to do and not what society or the prevailing power structure said it would be.

I have written before about being 18 and facing the draft. I took a hit when I characterized the military as a less than honorable profession. (See “Study War No More”) Those that have read my writings and have heard me speak know that I am a second generation military brat. My grandfather retired as a Colonel in the United States Army and my father retired as a Major in the United States Air Force; I was prepared to walk those same steps and would have joined the officer corps of the Air Force. But I was also brought up to make my own decisions and the one thing I objected to the most was being told that I had to serve and if I didn’t choose to serve, I would be drafted. And then when the inequities and inadequacies of the draft became evident, it was clear that the draft was not an honorable path.

To ask me to serve in a military that was fighting a war of questionable outcome and was willing to sacrifice the blood of thousands of young men for a dubious political goal was also not honorable. I was lucky; the bureaucracy didn’t get me and when I got the call for my physical, my acne and what it did to my back kept me out.

There are those today who call for a return to the draft. I am not one of them. The reasons for the war in Iraq not withstanding, if a draft is instituted there will be those who will find ways to avoid service and the same faults that dominated the draft in the 60’s and 70’s will dominate the draft today. Those who can escape the draft will do so; those who cannot will be called to die on foreign soil far away from their loved ones in a war that is fought for reasons no one can recall.

And just as many of the best and the brightest of one generation were lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia, so too will the best and brightest of another generation be lost in the deserts of the Middle East. My concern today is not about a war that is fought without reason or cause; my concern is for the generation that must follow us and who, whether they wish to or not, must bear the burden of decisions that our generation and the generation before us have made for this society and this country.

Earlier this fall, in my message (“Who Shall Be Invited?”) at First United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, I stated that we have lost the present younger generation and possibly lost the next generation as well. Our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions as a church have driven many of today’s young people away from the church.

As I was preparing that sermon and after I had written those words, I added the words that Martin Luther King put into his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King also wrote of a generation that the church has lost because of its actions and deeds, its words and its thoughts.

And now we learn that others are making the same conclusion. The Barna Group has recently completed and published a study that shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than previous generations at the same stage of life. (See http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=280) What is possibly worse is that the percentage today is lower than ten years ago. How can that be?

With the dominance of fundamentalist viewpoints and the call for family values, why are the youth of today turning away from the church? The answer comes from John the Baptist and his encounter with the Pharisees and scribes when they came to the Jordan River to watch his baptisms? (See Matthew 3: 7 if you forgot) What drove people away from the church during the sixties? Very simply, hypocrisy drove them away and it is hypocrisy that is driving them away today.

This is not just a report of nameless teenagers and young adults. The thoughts expressed in the report are thoughts of one of our granddaughters. Despite all the evidence we can show her and our encouragement to see for herself what is going on at our local church, she says she finds the church hypocritical.

For her, church is a lost cause because it hasn’t spoken out against the killing of innocent people in Iraq. She wonders why the people killed on September 11, 2001 are more valuable than the children killed in Iraq. She wonders if the American lives are worth more than the lives of Iraqi citizens or the citizens of other countries.

She also sees the church as driving gays away, excluding them from regular lives and from even entering a church. She knows of one and possibly other classmates who think they are gay but are afraid to say anything because they fear what actions their parents will take.

But what our granddaughter has encountered is nothing new. There were many of us who sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and watched our parents actively and passively support segregation and racial discrimination. You can’t say that we are all brothers and then have us go half way around the world and kill those same brothers.

Those of us who grew up in southern churches where the brotherhood of man and the love of Christ for all was preached on Sunday saw many congregants and pastors fight to maintain the status quo of legalized apartheid in this country during the rest of the week.

The Barna report only puts into words what many of us have understood and spoken about for the past few years. You cannot preach the Word of God and then not live it to its fullest and expect people to listen to you, let alone follow you!

This report will be and is being welcomed with great shouts of joy and acclamation by those on the political left. They see it as the death knell for fundamentalism and the political right’s alliance with the church. I am a little leery of such joy or expressions of glee. The feelings that young people have expressed when it comes to the church may apply to fundamentalist churches and those who attend such churches but the young people do not necessarily make that distinction.

The people being described in the article are leaving the church, not leaving particular churches. They see all churches, no matter what may be happening in individual churches as being close-minded, bigoted, and exclusive. While they may express a belief in the need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build homes for the homeless, and free the oppressed, they do not see those words or thoughts as being at all connected to Jesus Christ or the mission of the church. They speak the words of Christ without knowing that they do. They are seeking a place in which to live lives that they know are right but the church has put up walls and shut the door to them.

We have created a new lost generation and we must work to bring the lost ones home. We cannot do it by creating modern worship services that simply transform church materials into the vernacular of the age, though having modern music wouldn’t hurt. It isn’t a matter of what you wear. It is what is said and how it is said.

When the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people about living in Babylon during their exile (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7), he told them to live their lives as normally as they could.

The Israelites had two choices when it came to living away from the Promised Land. They could accept the lost and meld into the culture around them or they could maintain their own identity even though that meant being treated as “strangers in a strange land.” To meld into the culture around them would mean losing their own identity and almost certainly the loss of their souls. But to maintain their culture was to maintain their identity and when they returned to the Promised Land, as they had been promised by God that they would, they would be able to continue their lives.

The church has always walked that fine line between the secular and the sectarian. The church lives in a secular world and it must fight to avoid being swept up by that world. But, when the church lives in a sectarian world, with walls built to protect and defend the faith, it becomes very difficult to live at all. For walls that protect people from things on the outside also keep the people inside and prevents them from growing spiritually.

But a church (or any institution for that matter) that speaks the truth and encourages people to see the truth for themselves can maintain its identity without being caught up in the world around it. Paul warned Timothy that there would be wrangling over words but if he, Timothy, presented himself to God then he had nothing of which to be ashamed. (2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15)

Some years ago, I wrote a note to myself about today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 17: 11- 19) I was going to call the piece “Did the others say thank you?” Ten lepers, spiritual and physical outcasts of that society, approach Jesus in an effort to be healed. Jesus cures them by having them go to the local priests and be declared healed and ritually pure. Only one, the Samaritan, returns to say thank you to Jesus. In turn, Jesus tells him that it was his faith that healed him. Does this mean that the others were not healed?

I don’t think so. Jesus healed without distinction. Those who came to Him received the benefits of His touch and His words. Would the other lepers lose the healing that they sought? It is possible that they might for leprosy is an infectious disease and it is possible that the other nine might continue to live in the same areas that they had been living and thus were subject to re-infection. The Samaritan chose to walk another way and truly gain his freedom.

The church as a whole has put up barriers and it is these barriers that are driving people away. We may say that “our church does not have those barriers” and it is possibly true. But sometimes we do not even realize that there are barriers that keep people out of our church.

Some will say that the decreasing membership of the United Methodist Church is a failure of the church to be modern; in other words, the church is not up-to-date. Some will say that is a failure to be true to the words of the Bible; in other words, the church is too modern. But the words of Christ are timeless; they mean the same no matter what age we might live in. The question for us becomes one of where are we.

The Barna report is another warning that we are not living in Christ and the presence of Christ is not living in us. It is a call to each one of us to find Christ again and bring Him back into our lives. And then take Christ into the world each day.

We must live our lives so that we show the presence of Christ. It is not easy to do this; ask Paul about the life he lead when he chose to follow Christ. We are reluctant sometimes to do that. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we chose to live differently. We choose to live in a way that breaks down barriers that are built in our society because of nationality, gender, religion, or education.

The lost generation today is not a generation of writers or poets, artists or thinkers. The lost generation is that same generation that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the shepherd who would go seeking the one lost lamb when the rest of the flock was safe. The lost generation are those who, no matter how old they may be, have turned away from the church. They will not return unless we seek them and they will not return if what we offer is what drove them away. These are not easy words to write; they are even harder to speak. But, if we fail to live with Christ in us only means that we will also be lost.

The invitation today is to let Christ into your heart so that you may be found. The invitation today is to let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and empower your life so that you may live with Christ and Christ may live with you and you may help others to find that singular joy and peace.