“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.

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?

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.


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.


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.


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.

Tenants of the Vineyard

This is my posting for tomorrow, October 2nd.


The selection of Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, and 12 – 20 with Matthew 21: 33 – 46 is an interesting pairing, especially in light of Paul’s comments in Philippians 3: 4 – 14 and what is happening in the world today. We all know that the parable in this Gospel reading was directed towards the Pharisees and the religious establishment of Jesus’ time. It was also Jesus’ attempt to tell his followers that His ministry would end in his crucifixion.

But should this parable also not be directed at the religious establishment, especially at those modern-day Pharisees who insist that they know what the law is and how the law should be enacted and enforced? In that regard, the connection to the Ten Commandments is two-fold.

First, our modern day Pharisees and Sadducees are waging a fight to post the Ten Commandments in various public places. While there does, I believe, need to be an understanding of how these ten statements are a part of our judicial system, does that understanding go so far as require the posting of the Ten Commandments? I think that the argument is more about the object than the meaning. And if that is the case, then the argument to put up posters of the Ten Commandments or 5,000 pound blocks of stone with the Commandments carved into them becomes a violation of the Second Commandment, “you shall have no idols.”

What is interesting is that those who would violate this commandment almost always invoke the commandment about killing “thou shall not kill” when it comes to abortion. It would not be so hypocritical except that many of those opposed to abortion do not mind keeping the death penalty and do not mind supporting the war in Iraq. But does not killing in any form end in the death of a human? How can you stop the killing of one human but allow the killing of another unless it is for political reasons. And political reasons are not the reason that God gave us the Ten Commandments. They were given in order that we could establish relationships with God and with others.

Look at the Ten Commandments again and what do you see? You see rules about one’s relationship with God and one’s relationship with their family and others. And we must also remember Jesus’ own statement, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” It seems to me those today who insist on a rigid, theocratic and legalistic view of religion fail to remember this very statement. It is the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees who seek to kill Jesus in the church, not those seeking to get in.

Even Paul, who acknowledges his own background in the law, acknowledges that Jesus’ presence changes the relationship of the Ten Commandments. He was one to enforce the rules until that day on the road to Damascus; he was the one who willingly sought to force people into a rigid adherence to the law. But he was also the first to understand that Christ was the fulfillment and the embodiment of the law. Paul is the one who takes the first steps of opening the door and bringing everyone in.

We have heard of the pastors who have denied people access to the church because of their sexual orientation. Over 160 years ago, our own United Methodist church split apart over the issue of slavery. Some members of the church felt that those who owned slaves should not be a part of the church so those who did walked out and formed their own church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. For over 100 years, the Methodist Church was divided on the simple issue of human life with neither side on the right. It was not right to own slaves but then it was also not right to say to someone that they could not come into the church because they did own slaves or became the owner of slaves through marriage or inheritance. The United Methodist Church is, I fear, on the verge of another such split with neither side correct. But what I fear that any split that results from a 20th century interpretation of human sexuality will accomplish is the destruction of the United Methodist Church. I do not believe that in 100 years, when new scientific evidence might tell us more about human sexuality, that we will bring back the shattered remnants of the church in union again.

Vineyards often times cannot be repaired after years of disrepair and neglect. We are on the verge of abandoning the vineyard because we don’t like the other people working there. We must remember that we are also tenants of the vineyard, so we should be careful that we do not point our fingers at today’s Pharisees and Sadducees; after all, they only reached those positions because we have allowed them to do so. We have allowed the rules to be made that oppress people; we have allowed people to go hungry, naked and homeless. We have not been very good tenants of the vineyard. (Adapted from “Dinner Reservations” by Roger Lovette, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

As tenants of the vineyard, we were to take care of the vineyard and let things grow. But by adopting and allowing a rigid view of the world, we do not allow things to grow. And this is the one thing that I do not believe Jesus intended in His ministry. In his story of the ten virgins, some of them were wise but others not so. (Matthew 15: 1 – 13)

In this story, Jesus was telling us that some will make a religion out of Him. They will make a cozy haven, safe from the distractions of the world. But in doing so, these individuals will become dead Christians. It is the others who will be the living Christians, open to change, seeking the new and working to bring the world to the same.

When we freeze the word of God, when we make it impossible to grow, we only kill ourselves. Freezing the word of God, literally carving it in stone, we can justify hatred, ignorance and oppression. But if we put the word of God into our heart, we bring life to the word; if we bring Jesus into our hearts as our savior, we bring life to ourselves. In freezing the word, we put up barriers, we separate humanity from each other and we separate ourselves from God. That is not what the ministry of Jesus is about; that is not what we should be doing. (Adapted from http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/bl/PetrifiedReligion.htm)

What we need to be doing is opening the doors and letting people in, not shutting them out. We need to be fulfilling the Gospel, not ignoring it. Roger Lovette writes about a new Christian who saw the notice in the church bulletin about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This individual’s questions were “About this supper thing, am I invited and how much does it cost?” How shall we answer this individual? As tenants of God’s vineyard, shall we hold to our interpretation of the law or shall we rely on the fulfillment of the law in Christ?