“Continue the Journey”

This will be the back page for 29 October 2017 (21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin for the Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Service is at 10 am and you all are welcome to attend.

In my collection of sayings are the following quotes:

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” (Lewis Carroll)

“If you found a path with no obstacle, it probably does not lead anywhere.”  I found a reference that indicated someone named Frank A. Clark said this, but it didn’t say why he said it or when he said it.

These quotes reflect the paradox of life.  We want to know where we are going but we certainly do not want any obstacles to get in our way.  But journeys without obstacles often do not lead anywhere.  But if we prepare for a journey, even if we do know where it goes, we can deal with the obstacles and difficulties we might encounter.

Moses never reached the Promised Land but the work he did would allow the Israelites to do so.  But Moses left a leadership group to continue the work he began.

Paul focused on two things during his missionary journeys – bringing the Gospel message to the people and doing it in such a way so that others could continue after he left.

Throughout all the time in the Galilee, Jesus did the same thing – bring the Gospel message to the people and teach others to do the same after He left (even if they did not know that at the time).

As the hymn goes, we have decided to follow Jesus.  No matter what difficulties we may have, no matter what obstacles we encounter, we do know where we are going, and we work and prepare to reach that point.

And along the way, we help others to begin and continue their own journey, knowing that in the end, we will share in the Glory of God.

~~Tony Mitchell

“Staring Across The Abyss”

Mediation for November 2, 2014, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

All Saints Sunday

Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, Matthew 23: 1 – 12

I have chosen to use the regular lectionary readings for this Sunday rather than the lectionary readings for All Saints Day. In looking back at my records, I don’t think that I have ever used the lectionary readings set aside for All Saints Day; in fact, in all the years that I have been preparing messages or writing for a blog, there have been only two occasions where November 1st was a Sunday and one of those Sundays I wasn’t writing or preaching. Maybe that is just as well, especially this year, as I don’t do well with Revelations or apocalyptic writings.

Second comment – this is not going to be a complete meditation, or at least as I begin it, it is not going to be complete. There are things going on which make the writing of anything after my opening thoughts pretty hard to complete. But if you find my opening thoughts helpful, go ahead and finish it out.

Last week, Moses got to see the Promised Land but he wasn’t going to be able to enter it. And I will be honest, for many years, I thought that his not getting to the Promised Land was his penalty for picking the men who first explored the land. Of course, as I reviewed the Old Testament reading, I was reminded that it was Moses’ own errors that prevented him from entering the Promised Land and not what others have done.

But in today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites are once again standing on the edge of the River Jordan, staring at the Promised Land on the other side. It has been one generation since they stood in perhaps the same spot, one generation in time since some of the fore-fathers had lied about what was over the next horizon, one generation in which those who could not trust in God died off. Now, the next generation stood on the river’s bank, ready to cross over.

What must they have thought? Surely there were some in their group who remembered what had happened those years before and what had caused them to add years to the wandering. Was it going to happen again? Perhaps there was some unwillingness to take the step, wade in the water, get their feet muddy, and move on to the object and goal that for many was the goal of their lifetime.

Now, when I began thinking about this piece, I thought about standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking across to the other side and perhaps leaning over and peering down into the depths of that vast split in the Earth. I have never been to this interesting place though I have probably flown over it once or twice in my life. My only connection to the Grand Canyon is a book by Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time, in which he chronicled his two-month journey from one end of the canyon to the other. For those with a geological bent, walking down from the canyon rim to the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River was also a journey back in time.

I suppose that if I were to ever go to the Grand Canyon, I would want to brush up on my geology and especially a discussion of the measurement of time in geological terms. For, as we stare in awe as what God has done, there will be some trying to tell us that it was all done at once during the Great Flood or something to that effect and that it wasn’t done over a period of thousands and thousands of years.

But that is a thought for another time. Right now, I stare across the abyss that separates me from something that I can’t quite grasp. Maybe it is a struggle with faith; maybe it is an uncertainty about how faith is formed and shaped. I know that you cannot put your faith on a pedestal, to be stared at and admired. Faith has to be a part of you.

There are certain things that I do when I struggle with my writing. If it has to do with Scripture, especially in the New Testament, I get up from my desk and find my Cotton Patch Gospel; reading the words of the New Testament as if they were written by someone I knew growing up always seems to help.

If I am in that part of the writing where I am trying to put things in place, I pick up Faith In A Secular Age by Colin Williams. This was given to me by Marvin Fortel in the spring of 1969 when I was trying to figure out how faith fits into my life. I don’t think that there are too many pages in this book that are still held together as I have put it to pretty good use.

And then there is A Guide To Prayer. I have two copies of this book, one given when I began my “career” as a lay speaker and which shows the signs of age of twenty-three years of use. The second copy was given as a combination Christmas present and going away gift from the first group of pastors that I worked with. In one sense, it marks one step in this journey that I have been on so many years.

And from that book I found two thoughts. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention. (from Making All Things New by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

I could not help, when reading that paragraph, think that perhaps the image that I have of the Grand Canyon as a great abyss separating me from something was not that but a reminder of what God can do and how He wants me to better understand how things work.

Nouwen also wrote,

The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of here and now.

He concluded this by noting that,

Our first task is to dispel the vague, murky feelings of discontent and to look critically at how we are living our lives.

I think this may be what Paul was alluding to in his words to the Thessalonians.

So here we are. Somehow I have been able to put together a piece that meets the general goals of every piece I write (to at least link the three lectionary readings in some manner, shape or form). And I also have a conclusion, which I didn’t think I was going to get when I started.

There are times in our lives when we stand at an abyss, a wide spot that we seemingly can’t cross. And yet, as we look at what seems to be nothing, it gives us the opportunity to see and feel and sense the presence of God. Yes, we are scared; after all, it is a long way across and a long way down (and the old Gospel hymn reminds us that waters of the River Jordan are chilly and cold).

And it is totally possible that we may feel comfortable on this side but we know that the answers we seek lie on the other and the only way that we will get those answers is to get to the other side.

And the only way that we are going to get to the other side is through trusting in God, to lead the life that He would have us to lead. As long as we fear that abyss, we will find ourselves separated from God but as soon as we trust in Him, things are going to get better.

And pretty soon, we will no longer stare across the abyss but find a way to cross over to the other side.

Carrying the load

Here are my thoughts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 30 October 2011. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12. I have put my previous posts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) and my posts for these readings at the end of this particular post.

I have edited this since it was first posted.

Somewhere on my blog there is a note that I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. That means several things. It means that my academic gown is a little more elaborate than the gowns worn by those with Master’s degrees (though I liked the sleeves on the Master’s gown) or those worn by those with Bachelor’s degrees. It would have been nice if I could have gotten a beret to wear but that wasn’t part of the Iowa package. But I am happy with a robe that has a nice hood that shows my area to be science oriented and trimmed with the black and gold of Iowa.

More importantly, for those who are familiar with the field of science education, Iowa is the standard by which the field is measured. Because I choose to do my work in chemical education, it might have been better if I had gone to Purdue instead. Purdue has been the center of chemical education research since the late 1950s, when we began seriously examining the nature of how individuals learned science. But the opportunity to attend Iowa and complete my doctorate there was something that I could not pass up. To the credit of my doctoral committee, they gave me the opportunity to follow some ideas that I had rather than forcing me to choose one of their ideas that, while valuable to the field of science education, did not fit into my own career plans. It should be pointed out that I wanted to stay in and have stayed in chemistry; if I had desired or wanted to pursue a more education oriented career path, it would have been far more beneficial to follow the lead of the faculty at Iowa.

So, I am entitled to the use the title “Doctor” because I have earned it. But as a number of my friends, who supported me in the pursuit of this degree, have told me, they still won’t kiss my ring because of the extra letters I can put after my name.

But I have encountered many individuals who are like the religious scholars and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. They have that air about them that says that because they have a doctorate or, even worse, a doctorate from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, they are to be treated as royalty and every word that they uttered is to be treated as if it were from God Himself. There are on occasion those who even view God as an interloper into their realm. The sad part is that because the way life in academia goes, such attitudes are more prevalent and tend to be the norm, rather than the exception. And if you so desire to move forward in an academic-based life, it is the way that you have to go.

We do live in a world that almost demands adherence to the status quo, even when such adherence works against the goals of the organization. That I have a doctorate in science education means to some that I cannot, as I have written on a number of occasions, also have an active lay ministry. And for some, being an active lay minister in the United Methodist Church means that I cannot have a doctorate in science.

I also think that you are supposed to maintain the status quo when you receive your doctorate, even when your research and your writings are “outside the box” when it comes to the status quo. As I have pointed out on this blog, there have been a number of instances where I did something driven by my research or interests that don’t fit within what others think my doctorate should be about. Case in point – I was doing things relative to computer literacy before computer literacy was even considered a buzz word. Because I was ahead of the curve, I received quite a bit of static instead of praise. I thought that having a doctorate meant pushing the envelope, not simply confirming that wheels are round.

If the title that you have or the place you went to school is all that matters, then I fear that we are in for a very rude awakening in this country. For the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t all go to the very best schools and we can’t all have the fancy titles. Somewhere along the line, we have to get our hands dirty.

Twelve men were picked to carry the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan. While they stood in the River, the water stopped flowing and the people could cross safely. The Old Testament reading tells us that the river went dry while the twelve were standing in the river bed. But I wonder if the ground was immediately dry or if took some time to get that way. If it took time, that meant that the twelve carrying the ark were standing in mud for a little bit of time. It probably dried out as the people walked across but it had to be messy at the beginning.

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he and Silas worked at other jobs so as not to burden the people. Paul also speaks of the attitude in which they worked. Contrast what Paul to the Thessalonians with what was written about a prominent televangelist a few years ago –

One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:

  • a five-figure honorarium
  • a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
  • a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
  • a suite in a five-star hotel
  • a luxury car from the airport to the hotel (2004 model or newer)
  • room-temperature Perrier

This really makes me wonder how the apostle Paul, Timothy or Priscilla managed ministering to so many people in Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica. How did they survive without a manicurist if they broke a nail while laying hands on the sick? (from http://www.fireinmybones.com/Columns/072707.html – his is only one part of what J. Lee Grady wrote; let’s just say that some of those who claim to be preaching the Word of God are quoting the wrong book.)

It isn’t about who you are but what you do and why you do it. The research professor who simply passes notes to his graduate students about what to do and then write up the research report so that it can be submitted over his name without giving credit will have a hard time understanding the research if he never goes into the lab. The preacher (and there are so many of them today) who proclaim the prosperity gospel the true word of God will have a very hard time when they answer to St. Peter.

But I am concerned with those who listen to those false prophets and accept their words as the divine truth. I am concerned for those who see the poverty in this country but walk on by it; who see the need for housing in this country but choose to let the bankers destroy the housing industry. I am concerned with those who would rather let the insurance companies destroy the medical profession instead of seeking health care for all. I am truly concerned for those who say that the role of a Christian is to make disciples of all the peoples but who have no idea what that means.

It does not mean that we force people to believe as we do. When Jesus gathered with the disciples for what we call the Last Supper he told them love one another as He had loved them. This is how others would know that they were His disciples, by the love that they show for others. To show the love for others means that we must carry the load. We cannot stand on the side of the river and expect others to do the work; we have to be willing to help in whatever way we can. The Bible is filled with those stories that tell us the consequences of not completely the task before us.

In this time of so much uncertainty, it bodes well when we carry the load. Those who refuse to do so will find out soon enough what their refusal means.

The Basic Rules

I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (5 October 2008).  The service is at 10, location of church.


Once, when asked about paying taxes to the Roman authorities, Jesus replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God that which is God’s. It was an interesting answer to a question asked by the Jewish authorities in an effort to trap Jesus into openly declaring that He was in opposition to Roman authority. Needless to say, as in every case where the power establishment sought to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used against him, they failed.

So how do we reconcile this explanation of our sectarian and secular lives with the vision that many have today where modern day Pharisees want to make God’s laws mankind’s laws?

There is, to be sure, a relationship between the Ten Commandments and our modern day legal system. But our legal system is built on more than just the Ten Commandments; other legal systems, both from ancient history and relatively modern history, have gone into its development.

The problem isn’t that we should not seek a world based on God’s laws but rather that we don’t often understand what God’s laws are based upon. God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites to establish a covenant between the people and Himself. These Ten Commandments set the relationship between God and His people and between the people themselves. But while the Commandments are relational in nature, we have tried to turn them into a set of regulations, laws, and codes that will guide and direct our lives.

When we use a list of rules and regulations as a means of maintaining a relationship, we will find ourselves quickly falling into a pattern of sin. But we quickly and easily embrace the letter of the law as a reasonable substitute for its meaning. We do this because we think we can somehow regulate human behavior in such a way that it prevents sin when it merely points out the folly of doing so. We have to be careful that in creating laws and regulations that we do not substitute the law and adherence to it for the real thing, following God. This was the problem that caused God to cry out in Isaiah

God is asking, “Why this frenzy of sacrifices? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me,  whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that— all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?

“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless. (Isaiah 1: 11 – 17)

Paul’s words to the Philippians speak volumes about those who would use the Law to justify their position and their authority. As Paul wrote it, there is a great difference between the type of righteousness that comes from setting and following a set of rules and the type of righteousness that comes from embracing Christ and living the type of life that He showed us. How many times have we seen leaders, be they public or otherwise, who hold the law before our eyes but seek to go around it in their own lives?

In a world where the focus of the Bible is justice for the poor and the oppressed, why is it that we pass laws that favor the rich and the oppressors? In a world where equality is needed, why do our laws seek to divide and separate?

Why is it, when Jesus went among the people to bring them back to God, do we seek to create laws and requirements that keep people from God? We quite willingly create laws and regulations, both in the sectarian and secular sense, that make sin illegal. But all such laws do, it seems, is to make sin seem more sensible and inviting. We write laws that are based on our own ignorance and bias and claim them to be the thoughts of God. We are told that God’s laws are fixed and unchanging, yet we are unwilling to follow them unless they fit our own view of the world.

There are those who would have us post the Ten Commandments in our classrooms and our courtrooms or as stone monuments outside such buildings. But the very act of carving a stone monument threatens to violate the Second Commandment that there will be no graven images. And if you are going to use the commandment that one shall not murder as the basis for the argument that abortion is wrong, why are those who protest against abortion not among those who protest against the death penalty? And shouldn’t they be among those who protest against unjust and illegal wars or against war in general?

The parable in the Gospel reading for today is a warning, not just for those who heard the story two thousand years ago but for those today who seek to build the Kingdom of Heaven for their own purposes. They are the ones who will be punished, as those who heard the story two thousand years ago clearly understood. Those who build the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth and share the results of the vineyard will be rewarded; those who seek to keep the profits for themselves will fall under the weight of their own destruction.

It is one thing to make a law that protects you; it is an entirely different thing when you make a law that prevents you from doing something. We are required by law to wear our seat belt when driving or riding in a car. For some, especially when these laws were first passed, this was a nuisance. The attitude of many was that they had driven for several years without them and nothing had happened so why should they start wearing them now.

But it is a fundamental law of physics that things in motion will remain in motion and things at rest will remain at rest (Newton’s First Law of Motion). If you are involved in a car crash and you are not wearing your seat belt, you will find yourself obeying this law as you continue moving forward while the car has come to a stop. Wearing seat belts is the law because there are other laws, laws of nature, which will cause you greater harm than the discomfort of wearing the seat belt.

Laws in science may be changed, but it is only done with great reluctance and after much experimentation and thought. Our scientific process would be very questionable if the laws that govern nature were easily changed. Laws in science are, for the most part, unchanging and fixed; they are, if you will, carved in stone.

And the problem of any law is that you have to think through all the consequences of such laws. Those who would ban abortion are not willing to provide the help and aid that these newborn infants will need. If we are to have Biblically inspired laws, they have to be consistent. You cannot create laws and call them Biblical if they benefit one group of people while denying the same rights and privileges to other groups.

We have to have laws but they have to be laws that are based on relationships rather than prevention. They have to be laws that build, not destroy. The Law, as first embodied in the Ten Commandments, was not meant to replace our relationship with God; it was meant to increase that relationship.

But what happens when we make laws that prevent that relationship from being built; what happens when we make laws that prevent relationships and we claim that such laws are the natural order dictated by God. What happens when we make rules for membership in the United Methodist Church that are based on our own biases and, perhaps, ignorance? If we deny membership to someone because of those biases and ignorance, then are we not guilty of violating the very rules that we set forth? Are we not violating one of the basic tenets of the Bible that says that we should not judge, lest we be judged ourselves?

Now, as it turns out, we do have rules for membership in the Methodist Church. These rules were first articulated as the requirements for joining the early Methodist societies. There is no evidence that Wesley ever applied them to membership in the Church of England since there were no Methodist churches at the time he wrote these rules. (See “Did Wesley boot out “bad” Methodists?”)

It is quite clear, however, when you read Wesley’s General Rules that 1) many people would have trouble meeting the membership requirements and 2) the early Methodist churches in this country probably ignored them. After all, one of the rules prohibited the owning and selling of slaves, yet we know that there were Methodists in this country who were involved in the slave trade and owned slaves. It was the ownership of slaves through marriage that lead to the first schism in the Methodist Church, a split that lasted longer than the actual Civil War.

So are the rules just archaic reminders of the beginnings of our denomination; are we to say that how one leads their life has no bearing on their membership in a church or society?

What are Wesley’s three basic rules? Wesley insisted, however, that evangelical faith should manifest itself in evangelical living. He spelled out this expectation in the three-part formula of the Rules:

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

The taking of the name of God in vain

The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling

Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.

Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves

Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.

The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty

The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest

Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers

Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.

Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:

The putting on of gold and costly apparel

The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God

Softness and needless self-indulgence

Laying up treasure upon earth

Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them

It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men:

To their bodies, of the ability which God gives, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.

To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

By all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.

By running with patience the race which is set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.

It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

The public worship of God.

The ministry of the Word either read or expounded.

The Supper of the Lord

Family and private prayer

Searching the Scriptures

Fasting or abstinence

These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repents not, he has no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

Perhaps the best way to understand these rules is to remember what John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

If anyone, be they a member of a Methodist church or not, leads a life which runs counter to either these General Rules, the Ten Commandments, or even the basic intent of life outlined in the Bible, membership in the church will be the least of their worries. On the other hand, if one follows either these rules or the Ten Commandments with the expectation that adherence to the rules without an understanding of what the rules and laws imply and require, they too will have other worries. It is only when you understand that the rules require a new life, a life found in God through Christ that victory will be gained.

John Wesley once said

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

And just as we heard Paul’s words to the Philippians warning us against those who would use their power and authority to create laws that destroy relationships and prevent the completion of the Gospel, so too do we hear Paul’s words telling us that he has given up the life in the law and is now leading a life in the Spirit. He saw the law as a stumbling block to his life in Christ and so he gave up the law. But now he is on his way, to a better life, to a life in Christ.

In the end, we have to make fundamental decisions about who we are and what we do, not by some set of arbitrarily designed rules but by the rules that were laid down by God on Mt. Sinai to His people, our spiritual ancestors.

The Order of Things

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.


Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The Gospel reading for today is a most interesting one in light of today’s society and whom we honor today. For answering the challenge put forth by the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus draws the line between church and state. Of course, later Jesus points out that this division is only in terms of how we live our secular lives since we cannot serve two masters.

Some see the world around us and wonder how the church will survive, especially if it is part of today’s society. There are some people who feel that we are in the midst of a great cultural battle and that if society is to be saved, it must be through a return to strong Christian values.

This is not a new thought. The Shakers, whose hymn “Simple Gifts” is a favorite of mine, were a Christian group formed as a response to the social conditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and bend, we will not be ashamed.

To turn and to turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning, we come round right.”

For them, the only solution was to leave the present society behind and create a new one dedicated to the glory of God. The Shakers may have had the right idea because the movement flourished here in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the Shaker movement did not last because the evils, which caused the problems in the first place, were never corrected. The lesson to be learned is simple. A church that ignores its responsibilities to society, a church that does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.

Instead of running away and cloistering ourselves in religious communities, immune from the outside world, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)

To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. John Wesley understood the challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, its heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

So perhaps we should look at what is happening today in another way. Christ, through his example, showed us that there is creativity in life released to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we hold to a strictly religious view of the world, we may not see this. An open society, while seemingly opposed to God and one that we would fear, should be seen as an opportunity for us to seek the presence of God in this world. The freedom of an open society should be seen as a gift of Christ, not as a sign against him. Our task in this society is find ways to keep this freedom, not fight for a return to an olden ways or a separation from society. Christ calls us to see that we have the opportunity to join Him in his continued struggle in history, as we are lead toward the goal that He revealed (see notes at the end of Thessalonians).

Today is about finding out how we can do this, find ways to see Christ in today’s society. Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the United Methodist Church dedicated to the laity of the church. It is a rather unique day in that while other faiths allow the laity to participate and occasionally preach, only the United Methodists focus on the laity.

It is not necessarily for those who are called to ministry, be it simple lay speaking or those who seek ordination but it is for all members of the church. It is my hope and belief that each and every one of you will somehow be involved in the work of the church. You will be getting a call from the worship committee in the next few weeks asking that you and your family take part in the Advent series that will start the last Sunday in November. It is not on the calendar and I do not know all of the plans, for I am leaving that to the laity, for the decoration of the church as well. After Advent, as we prepare for Lent and the Easter Season, I would like volunteers to read the Old Testament and Epistle readings on a particular Sunday.

It is not that I am trying to get out of work but a church that is to grow must have active laity and the activities are not a limited number. There are countless other places and times when you can help the church; you will know when that it is. As we approach the new year and annual conference, it is also a time for nominations to the various committees and administrative council. The reason for those positions is to provide the leadership for the church.

I don’t know of a faith that doesn’t have the laity doesn’t have the laity participate in the service but I do feel that such participation occurs only after training or the examination of credentials. Some faiths allow lay members to preach but frown upon them doing so from the pulpit. Neither of these practices occurs in the United Methodist Church. Also, the United Methodist Church is the only faith that I am aware of that has a program for lay speakers. It was through that program that I am at this point in my career.

But dedicating this day to the laity is not just about lay speaking. On Laity Sunday in some churches, today is simply an excuse for the pastor to take the day off and let the lay speaker or lay leader preach. Today is as much about the heritage of the church through the Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Wesley, the United Brethren in Christ founded by Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, and the Evangelical Association founded by Jacob Albright. For, if it had not been for the laity of the church during the days of the circuit riders, there would not be a United Methodist Church today.

In the old days, and they are not that old because I know of a number of and have been a circuit rider myself, it was the laity that held the church together and ran the services on the Sundays when the preacher was somewhere else.

That is why Paul spends as much time lauding the people of Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Colossus, and all the other cities where he started churches. It was the laity during the early days of the church that held the church together and helped it grow; it was the laity that help churches grow and prosper here in American; it will be the laity that leads the church into the coming decade and new century.

And it should be noted that the one mark of a strong and healthy church is when the members, not just a few, but all participate in the activities of the church. It is important to note that it is not the activities themselves or the type of activities that are done nor that all people do all of the tasks but that all are involved.

But it hasn’t always been easy to get people involved in the activities of the church. We could, when asked, be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape fail, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.

Consider Moses. Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land but what did he do? He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” And in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is asking God who is going to send to help him.

In 1991, on Laity Sunday, I preached my very first sermon, basing it in part on the song “Amazing Grace”. I have always loved that song, in part because of its ties to Southern gospel singing and in part for the reasons that John Newton wrote the song in the first place.

John Newton was a slave ship owner, plying the triangle trade of rum, tobacco, and slaves. But one day, it is reported that he began to question the morality and purpose of this commerce and he gave it up; he turned his ship around and freed the slaves that he was transporting. He did this because the Holy Spirit came to him. Now I do not know if his experience was like that of Paul’s, who was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, or if it was like that of Wesley’s, whose heart was warmed by the Holy Spirit. It might have been like that of Moses’ who was able to see God after he walked by him as Moses was hidden in the rock. What I know was that his experience changed his life. Everyone has an experience with the Holy Spirit. It is one thing that changes your life.

It does not matter how you encounter the Holy Spirit; it does matter is that you do. Many times, I have wondered when I truly came to know Christ. I have come to know that while I cannot pinpoint the day and time like others can, I know that He is a part of my life. I, like Wesley, know in my heart that I can trust Christ as my Savior; that my life is much different because I did so and let Him into my life. I can truly say in awe how amazed I was to know that Christ died on the cross for me, even when I was not yet a person on this earth.

Hymn 163 – “Ask Me What Great Things I Know.”

Paul lauded the members of the churches for the work that they did in his name. The founders of the three faiths that now comprise the United Methodist Church put a great faith in the work of the laity to insure the success of the church. That is what today is about.

This day is also about bringing Christ into the world; of letting others know who Christ was and what He means today. We do not have to give up our lives as much as we have to change the direction our lives take. In a world of chaos and confusion, knowing who Christ is brings an order to things.

But Who Will?

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.


There are a number of hymns that we sing that interest me. Some I like for what they say, some for the source of the hymn and others for the reason they were written or who wrote them.

For example, the most prolific hymn writer in our hymnal, besides the Wesley family, is probably Fanny Crosby. Over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy. It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance” (UMH 369). Through her songs, she showed the triumph of spirit over adversity.

My favorite writer, though, has to be John Newton. Newton’s signature hymn is “Amazing Grace”. It happens that I, like countless others, also like the hymn. I like it for the tune because the tune comes from Virginia Harmony and is representative of classical American folk hymns. I came to know this hymn before I knew the reasons why it was written and I appreciated it more after I knew why.

Like so many of his time, John Newton went to sea as a young man, serving in the English navy and then on commercial ships. Ultimately he rose through the ranks to become a ship’s captain and owner. And as the captain and owner of a ship when sea power was the source of wealth and power, he enjoyed the riches that such a position commanded. But his ship was a slave ship, running the triangle route of slaves to America, rum from America to England, and goods back to Africa to trade for slaves, and his wealth was tied to the slave trade of the early 18th century.

But one day, during a storm much like the one that tested John Wesley’s faith, John Newton faced the conflict and dilemma that existed between his work and his soul. We hear that crisis of life in the first words of his bibliographical hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” (UMH 378)

When Arlo Guthrie sings this song, he dramatizes the event and suggests that Newton immediately changed the course of his boat and freed his cargo. I am not sure that it was all that dramatic but we do know that he changed his life and worked against the slave trade, choosing to follow and to work for God rather that collect the riches that society would have allowed him to gain.

When we speak of those who choose to follow God, we are reminded of the twelve disciples, each of whom was asked to follow Jesus without any knowledge of what the life would be like or what the gains would be.

We are like Newton or the disciples or any number of people given the opportunity to follow the path laid down before us by God. That is what the parable Jesus told in the Gospel reading for today is all about.

There is a great wedding, one so large and of so much importance that the invitations were sent out months in advance. And now with the time of the wedding present, the king sends out messengers to let the invitees know now is the time. But when the invitees receive this final notice they reply that they are too busy and don’t have the time to come to this important event in their lives. Rebuffed, the king sends out additional messengers to invite those who ordinarily would not receive invitations to such a prestigious ceremony.

And this second group of individuals come and come prepared, as one would expect. All that is but one individual. And though he knew of the invitation and the reason for the invitation, he chooses not to prepare. So he was thrown out of the wedding.

Read if you will this story again but make the people of Israel and those who know God as the first group of invitees. They knew God was planning a great event, yet they turned their back on Him. The second group would be the Gentiles, who in the early mission of the church would only get second consideration to such events. But having been on the outside of society so long, they welcomed the opportunity to be invited and took advantage. All but one, for even those who get a second chance must still show respect to God.

More than once the people of Israel heard the call of God and more than once they have ignored it. We read in the Old Testament reading how they Israelites quickly returned to their old ways when Moses went to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Though they should have been preparing for Moses’ return, they quickly fell back into the routines of a life without God, seeking comfort in that which could not provide comfort.

It is only because Moses goes before God and pleads for God to forgive His chosen people that God recants on his vow to destroy his people. How many times do we read in the Old Testament of the people leaving the protection of God only to have a prophet ask God to forgive them? And how many times do we read that God did just that?

Not always, of course, for there are countless time when God has been content to let the people suffer the consequences of their own actions. But no matter what happens, God never forgets his people and they come back better.

Perhaps that is how we should see the world around us today. We hear some religious leaders talk of America being punished by God for their wayward actions, though I don’t think that is the case. That which has been wrought on us today is as much a fault of our own arrogance and ignorance of others as it is the anger and hatred that has been built against us by those in envy of what freedom is all about.

But our fight against such evil is not evil but the use of good works. If we choose to fight evil in kind, we can never expect to win; for all it will do is breed more evil. But if we choose to follow and present a message of peace, justice, and righteousness; if we choose to follow Jesus, then we can truly expect the triumph of good over evil, of peace and freedom over slavery and death.

And like the Israelites before us, we are given the choice of what we shall do. We are asked, like Paul asked the people of the church in Philippi, to work together. We do not know what is going on but from the way Paul writes the letter, whatever the problem is, the problem is set to bring down that church. Paul reminds and encourages those there to rejoice. This joy is not based on agreeable circumstances but rather on their relationship with God. We are going to face troubles in this world but we can rejoice because God is using those troubles to improve our character, to strengthen us.

But it also requires, as Paul encouraged that congregation to do, that we work together. We cannot work against each other and expect to triumph. God will not work in a situation where people work against each other but God will be there through the Holy Spirit to see the final triumph.

There is one other hymn that I like, “Here I Am” (UMH 593). I like it for a number of reasons, partially because it strikes so close to home. In Isaiah 6: 8 the prophet wrote,

I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”

Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6: 8)

We have been called to the great feast, the great wedding of the Gospel story today. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that Jesus was sent to this world to stand before God and plead our case for us. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that through Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and we are empowered to go forth. We have been given the keys to final victory, to see the triumph of peace, justice, and righteousness over evil and the oppression of the poor. The call is very clear but the question asked to day is who will answer the call.

Invitation to a Party

I am preaching at Mountainville United Methodist Church this morning. Here is what I will be saying.

When asked why he planned to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory replied “Because it is there.” It was a challenge before him and it was a challenge to be answered. Mallory also knew that it was a challenge that was dangerous and history records that he died on the slopes of Everest trying to complete an ascent.

When John Kennedy proposed that this nation go into space, it was in the form of the challenge. He also acknowledged that there was danger in this challenge but he also stated that without the danger, there would be no challenge. And if we failed to face the danger, we would not respond to the challenge. And as history will undoubtedly note, the disasters that have befallen the space program in the recent years have come because we have become complacent about the risks that are involved. It almost seems as if we are trying to avoid failure more than we are trying to move outward.

Our own forefathers knew that it would be a challenge to take this country down the road to independence. They knew that any failure to meet this challenge would probably result in their own deaths. But to ignore the challenge because of the dangers that would come from failure would mean a life that was no better.

And our own John Wesley saw his ministry as a challenge, both in terms of place and the way that it would be conducted. On August 18, 1739, Wesley recorded the following dialogue between Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, and himself.

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

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. “([1] Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal (also noted in http://frterry.org/History/Chapter_15/Chap.15%20Handout_205.htm)

Because of the Anglican Church’s opposition to the Methodism Revival lead by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield, John Wesley preached in open fields in the community. Used to the traditional approach of formally written sermons preached from the pulpit, John Wesley was initially reticent to utilize this new form of evangelism. But the challenge to present the Gospel message was greater than a reverence to tradition and Wesley moved out into the fields. In the fields, those who opposed the Wesleyan revival were encouraged to throw stones. Wesley wore the bruises that came with the stones as a badge of pride for he knew that if he did not go out into the fields then his ministry would come to an end.

It is really interesting how this unwillingness to venture forward has affected our lives. There is a certain understanding to keep fear at bay and to feel safe in this world. But, in the process of trying to do so, we have made fear of the unknown an even greater fear. Some of the older generation may remember what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to the 77th Congress on January 6, 1941:

In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression –everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way– everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor –anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. (http://www.libertynet.org/~edcivic/fdr.html)

We have forgotten these words, especially about a world free of fear. Now we live in a world where fear is an almost commonplace topic. We know live in a world where fear is the basis for all our decisions; we have left behind the other side of the human decision, the urge to be daring, and the urge to go out into the unknown.

We no longer take chances that will lead to positive change; in all that we do, we seek to keep the bad from getting worse, not letting the good become dominant. (Adapted from http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=26377) We see danger in the unknown and we dare not venture into the unknown because there is danger. We want to live in the security of the now and we dare not look to tomorrow.

This same fear has reached out and taken hold of the church. The message of the modern church is more one of self-righteousness and exclusiveness than it is one of welcome, hope and promise. It is a message that presents a “feel-good” version of the Gospel, designed to make you feel comfortable with where you are but without the challenge of the Gospel. In some quarters it is known as “Gospel-lite”; it sounds great but is less filling. The signs of Christ are missing; there is no reminder that Christ died on the cross for our sins for the Cross is no longer there. It makes too many people uncomfortable. The music sung in today’s modern church is almost devoid of feeling and more what critics call “7-11” songs, 7 words repeated 11 times.

The message of many churches today is one of comfort within the walls. It is a message more of fear for the unknown than it is a presentation of the Gospel message. It is more about being safe by keeping others out than it is welcoming others in; for we do not know what will happen when we let others in.

Several churches in the Memphis area serve as temporary homes for homeless families. The families, and they must be families, have been made homeless for any number of reasons, mostly economic. But the parents are working and trying to make it in this world. They need the support of others in order to do that. Now, understand that these families have to go through a rather rigorous process in order to get into this program and they are put under a lot of strain. It is not easy moving from church to church each week but it is a great deal easier than the alternatives. But what I find interesting is the number of churches with the resources to be a part of the program that will not join because they have to let homeless men, women, and children stay in the church for a week at a time. We fear homelessness and we do not want such a fear to enter our church. But you cannot defeat fear with ignorance and when you are ignorant of the truth, you will be fearful. It seems that we are more like the people of Israel in the desert wilderness, afraid of what lies beyond the horizon, afraid to venture out alone.

Consider what has transpired in the Old Testament readings over the past few weeks. The people of Israel, who witnessed the great miracles of God in convincing the Egyptian Pharaoh to let them out of bondage, have also witnessed the great miracles of the destruction of the Egyptian army and being fed and given water. They have seen the foundation of society with the Ten Commandments. Yet they remain afraid, because God comes to them in thunder and lightening, in a dark cloud. They would rather let Moses speak to God than deal with God by themselves. And the moment that Moses leaves them to speak with God, they are crying out for a false god, one that they can see and touch. And they willingly give of themselves in order to have their request fulfilled. “Give us a god that we can see and touch and we will not be afraid,” cried the Israelites on the plain of the Sinai. They did not trust in the God who had brought them out of bondage, destroyed the Egyptian army and fed and watered them throughout their days in the desert. The minute all signs of God were gone, they panicked.

Look again at the words of Paul to the Philippians. “Always be glad you are Christians” Paul told the Philippians. “Since the Lord is close by, so don’t fret over anything. Rather, as you thankfully pray, let God in on all your needs. Then God’s peace, which is beyond anything you have experienced, will stand watch over your mind and emotions in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4: 4 – 7 (Cotton Patch Gospels, translated by Clarence Jordan)

“My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing) – In The Faith We Sing, #2212

If our fears are relieved by the presence of the Lord in our lives and we can keep on singing, then why should we not move forward? Our lives should focus on reaching out, going beyond the minimum. Yes, it is true that if we do not push ourselves beyond the status quo, we cannot lose what we have. But there are risks in simply holding on to what we have at and in the present. Consider the one who accepted the invitation to the party but then was kicked out because he was not dress properly. The invitation that God gives us requires that we go beyond where we are; it means that we must go beyond what we are today and look to a new life and a new beginning.

We are called, as Paul writes, to use our skills and talents to reach beyond ourselves and help others, not merely enjoy what we have for its own sake. When we use what God gives to us to enhance our own position in the world, we are circumventing the purpose of the Gospel. We live in a world where the name of God is invoked almost regularly. We live in a world that often makes light of the Gospel, sometimes using Christian rhetoric while pandering to the rich and powerful but ignoring the poor and the oppressed. Those who do this will be among those who are not invited to the party.

When we trivialize our commitment to God’s realm and try to fit into a secular culture, we are creating the same false gods that the Israelites made on the plains of the Sinai so many years ago. Instead of being the light of the world, we often make light of our own responsibilities to the world in the name of God. We fail to bring that Christ-like touch that we have gained into the dark places of the world. And when we do this, we become like the one who was invited to the party but did not prepare for the party and was then kicked out.

If we are Christians in name only or if we adopt a stance that overlooks justice and hospitality towards others, we deprive the world of Christ’s influence through us. We are also depriving ourselves of the rigor that changes lives; we deprive ourselves of the challenge that being called to Christ presents.

If we choose to follow the false gods of this world, we choose to live in a culture of cynicism and emphasis on form rather than substance. This encourages us to make light gestures more suitable for fifteen-minute sound bites rather than strong commitments. Jesus did not make light of the people with whom He interacted. He poured out His life, totally and completely as He listened, taught, and loved people, both friends and strangers. (Adapted from “An invitation” by Judith Johnson-Siebold in Christian Century, October 4, 2005)

There are three types of people involved in the parable of the wedding feast. The first are those who are to0 busy holding onto the false gods that give them security in the present but offer nothing for the future. How can they let go of what they have now in exchange for what they do not know about tomorrow? Such individuals cannot see the promise, the hope that is the Gospel message. The second type of person accepts the invitation but is unwilling to do more than is asked of them. They come but they leave the party early because they are also unwilling to commit to the future. The third type of person is the one who understands that God’s invitation is a fulfillment of the Gospel message.

In those darkest moments of personal despair, when our own fears and uncertainty seem to have driven away any hope, any promise of a better world, there is this invitation. Alone in the desert, we hear God calling to us to fear not, for I have sent my Son to save you. Do we not hear the words of His Son, our Lord and Savior, speaking out, “if you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)

How can we not go into the future when we know that God will be with us throughout the journey? How can we not keep from singing and rejoicing in God’s presence in our lives?

There is no challenge in the invitation to the party that God is giving. That invitation was made long ago. Rather, the challenge that we face is to accept the invitation, to cast aside our fears, to cast aside the false gods that have confused our lives and go to the party.