“Questions for God”

Here are my thoughts for the back page of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this Sunday, October 14, 2018, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

To understand what Job is thinking, one needs to understand the mindset of society at that time.  Then, having wealth, power, and prosperity were signs that God was pleased with you.  Sickness and poverty were signs that one had sinned and the degree to which one sinned was reflected in one’s poverty and pain.  It is a view held by many today.

Everyone is telling Job that he should just accept his punishment and curse God.  But Job knows that he is being punished unjustly and he wants to know why.  But to ask God “Why?”, he must know where to find God.

If we keep reading, we see that, in the next chapter, Job complains about those who take advantage of the poor and helpless and yet God doesn’t seem to do anything.  “Where is the justice,” Job asks.

How can there be a just God when God doesn’t seem to care what the rich and powerful do; how can there be a compassionate God when the poor, the displaced, and the oppressed are forgotten?

Some ask such questions but don’t get the answers they seek, and they turn away.  But it is our faith that allows us to seek these answers and it is in our faith that we will find the answers.                           ~~Tony Mitchell

“The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”

I am at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT) this Sunday morning, October 21, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 38: 1 – 7, (34 – 41); Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; ; and Mark 10: 35 – 45. Their services start at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

We have traveled many different paths to get to this place in space and time. We traveled some of the paths because we had no other choice, we traveled some rather reluctantly, but there have been some paths that we willingly and joyfully chose to travel. Our lives have been formed by the paths that we have walked and our lives will determine the paths that we walk when we leave this place today.

In 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Silvis, Illinois, to begin teaching at a community college there. I was looking forward to making this move because I was going to be teaching again after being in graduate school at the University of Memphis. And because Iowa City was only about an hour and a half from the college where I was teaching, I would be able to complete the work on my doctorate in Science Education. As a side note, if you are interested in graduate work in the area of science education, the best place then and now to do this work was and is the University of Iowa. It was a path that I chose to walk.

That period of time, the mid 1980s, was a time when many in this country felt that the country had lost its competitive advantage and were seeking to regain it. It was also a time marked by an increased interest in the nature of creativity and innovation.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies in which they identified what they thought were the basic principles of modern business management. I was interested in this research for two reasons. First, my father was an industrial engineer who specialized in time and motion study. As a disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, he looked at the ways things operated and thought about how to make them work better.

More importantly, I arrived on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City as this search for excellence was being applied to science education in this country. The faculty members at Iowa who would guide, direct and advise me on my doctoral studies were leading this research.  And one mark of the excellence of the Iowa program, at least for me, is that I was allowed the choose the path my doctoral studies would take and I was not required to be part of this research.

The conclusions as to what made an excellent or exemplary program in science education very closely matched the conclusions of Peters and Waterman (see Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

Peters and Waterman began their research by noting that the dominant model for business management was predicated and based on the financial bottom line. Nothing matter but that which improved the bottom line. There was no concern for the goods or products being produced; there was no concern for the workers involved or what the customers truly wanted. A company’s goal was to produce its product at the lowest possible cost.

Peters and Waterman found a blind acceptance of the bottom line as the only truth. But this model, called by some the “rational model” made people, both employees of the company and customers, part of the equation and, because it was an equation, there was no room for creativity and innovation. Management in the more traditional companies stayed away in their corporate offices, relying on analytical reports to give them a sense of the direction of the company.

What Peters and Waterman concluded was that successful companies did things just a bit differently. Such companies did not put a heavy reliance on analytical tools but understood that you had to understand what was happening. The bottom line on a financial picture can tell you one thing but it cannot tell you what is happening at that moment in the factory, the workplace, or the marketplace. Management in successful companies was accomplished by wandering around, seeing what was happening. By the way, how was it that Jesus conducted his ministry throughout the Galilee?

Successful companies focused on the needs of the customer and listened to the employees; they gave the employees the freedom to experiment, to be creative and innovative. It was pointed out that people in the successful companies were encouraged to develop new ideas and try them out without fear of failure. People in traditional companies who sought to do the same were often discouraged from doing so, to the point of perhaps being fired.

When the NSTA group looked at what were considered exemplary and innovative programs in science education, they came away with many of the same conclusions. It was the teachers in the classroom who created the successful and exemplary classes, not the management or administration. Innovation and creativity come from the bottom up and the bottom line is a lousy way to measure productivity. I recall one instance where a school administration told the creator of one of the innovative chemistry programs that she had to have been doing something wrong because all of the students in that particular school wanted to take chemistry classes and it was the administration’s view that only about 10% of the students were capable of taking chemistry.

Now, some thirty years after these studies, I have to wonder if we learned any lessons from them, both in business and education. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on Total Quality Management (see “To Search For Excellence”). As I wrote then, about half-way through the three-day seminar I began to experience a sense of deja vu. In the end, the only thing that I learned was that I already knew most of the points that were being presented because they were the driving points behind what my father did as an industrial engineer for the United States Air Force, McDonnell Aircraft (before the merger with Douglas Aircraft) and RCA. All that TQM did was take time and motion study and give it a new name. And for the record, this seminar was sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

I am not entirely certain that what Peters and Waterman laid out before us has ever accepted. It seems to me that we still place an overbearing reliance on that traditional model, that if big is better, becoming bigger is even better. In the time since that book was first published, we have seen company after company get bigger, not by work, but by buying other companies. And the American people have accepted that idea that low cost is better than quality. We see in the products we buy; we have pushed the idea in our schools.

And I fear that today, with regards to Christianity and the church, we may be doing the same thing. One of the things that prompted me to title this message as I did was the beginning portion of the conversation James and John had with Jesus that day some two thousand years ago. What does it say about your work when you are more interested in the power of the position than the outcome? How many times in our own churches have we heard such a discussion? How many times have we seen a church destroy itself internally because of similar power struggles?

A recent survey by the Pew Institute indicates that 1 in 5 Americans today no longer claims any religious affiliation. This doesn’t mean that they no longer believe in Christ or God but rather they can find no place where they feel it possible to express their beliefs. What they very well may see in churches today is not the church that was but an extension of the world around them. Those who disavow religion are not necessarily forsaking Christ but they want to know how to deal with the world and they believe that Christ will offer them the answer. But if the church, in general, by denomination, or by building, is no different that the world, how will they find the answer?

And there is that prediction that I am sure that you are well aware of that there will be no United Methodist Church in twenty-five years because there will be no more United Methodists alive. Personally I hope to still be around then but where will I go if I should be one of the few?

I know that my voice is in the minority and there are many out there who would rather that I keep silent on the subject of revitalizing the United Methodist Church. But when I consider how people of the United Methodist Church helped me find the path to walk when I needed that guidance and how that guidance kept me from the wildnerness, how can I keep silent?

I know that there are others like me who see a church that has forgotten what path it is supposed to be walking. There are many out there, laity and clergy, who feel that the present plans and thoughts of the United Methodist Church miss the point and lead down the wrong path. Like me, they are committed to returning the church, both in general and for the United Methodist Church in particular, to a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. Perhaps we are disturbers of the peace that don’t fit well into the traditional model of how things work but then again neither were the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist. They raised their voices, they cried out in the wilderness and in the cities for the people to repent and change one’s ways.

I think about what a blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, wrote about John Wesley a few weeks back. John is a local pastor out in Indiana and a business communication instructor at Indiana University. We will probably come to a major disagreement of some sort when the Iowa Hawkeyes soundly defeat the Indiana Hoosiers in football on November 3rd but not about Methodism in general. He wrote,

Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.

It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.

In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.

Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear. (From John Meunier’s “The final word from the IOT”)

I fear that what has caused our numbers to drop and what has caused people in general to say that they have no religious affiliation is not a lack of belief but an indication that churches today no longer focus on the primary mission of the church. They have become way too concerned about other things, things expressed by the bottom line on a financial statement. Perhaps the one thing that the Peters and Waterman study showed was that when you put people first, you succeed. And if the United Methodist Church is not in the people business, then I don’t know what its business is.

The church, be it in general, by denomination, or by individual building, should be concerned about the people and not just the people who come on Sunday and sit in the pews. It is the people who are outside the sanctuary walls, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. Those where the people Jesus came to minister to; those where the ones that Wesley and the other early Methodists reached out when the church ignored and cast them out.

I again turn to John Wesley’s words, words that he spoke about what Christianity should be doing. And I again give thanks to John Meunier for putting them on his blog. John Meunier wrote,

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Wesley put the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since. (From John Meunier’s “What is a Methodist?”

In another sermon, I believe that Wesley pointed out that for those who are physically hungry, there was little comfort in the Scriptures. How can we even begin to find excellence in the church today when our concerns no longer match the reason we are called Methodists?

So I return to the title of this message and ask how we will find excellence in the church today? Let us look again at what Jesus said to James, John, and the other disciples in the Gospel reading for today, if you want the power that comes in God’s Kingdom, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to go out and serve those whom you would lead. And if you are not willing to do that in some way, then be prepared to be left behind.

There are many interpretations of God’s monologue with Job in today’s Old Testament reading. Some will say that the God who spoke to Job and his friends was an angry God, reminding each and everyone of them of His power. For these individuals, God was reminding everyone that He is superior to all and that everyone needed to know it. In this vein, those who dare to challenge God are to be put into their place. I have heard this type of response before, from management who feel that they know my subject better than me and that my ideas are meaningless and worthless.

For the past five years I have served as the registrar for the New York/Connecticut District Lay Speaking, now Lay Servant, Committee. We have discovered that this position, which I essentially invented, may very well be the only such position in the entire United Methodist Church. Others are discovering that such a position is needed as we make the changes in the lay servant ministry. The other day someone high in the conference administration told the individual who took on my job as the registrar that he had a better program for monitoring the work of lay speakers. That’s great but how does he know that his program or method is better than mine when he never discussed it with me?

Would a god (lower case, by the way) more interested in power and authority have sent His Son to this time and place to save us?

If we understand that what God is doing in this case is responding to the request of Job, then we have a better understanding of what is happening. God’s Words are not words of anger but words of revelation. In His words to Job and Job’s friends, God opens up the world for us to see it in all of its glory. Instead of fear, we are to stand in awe.

For me, this monologue is also a statement that God is here, right now, in this place at this time, and if we cannot see Him, it is because we have forgotten who God is and what He looks like. We have become so hung up on the trappings of the church that we have forgotten why we are here in the first place. People do not come to church because of a number at the bottom of a column on a budget; they come to church because they seek God. They have heard of the great things God has done; they want to experience those great things as we have. They have heard the message that Jesus offers hope to the downtrodden and they seek that hope.

And yet, too many times, they are rejected by the people of the church. The passage from Hebrews that we read this morning reminds us that the church of Jesus’ time put layers between the people and God but that through Jesus’ sacrifice, those layers were removed. Can we truly say that anyone walking through the doors of this or any church are able to gain access to Christ or are we more worried about the way they look or act?

I began by noting that each one of us came to this time and place by a variety of paths, some that we choose, some that others choose for us. There was another path that I choose to walk, the path that lead me to Christ. My decision to seek Christ, as is everyone’s decision, was an individual one. The path that we walk to and with Christ is one that we will always walk alone, though others may be on the same path as each of us.

Yes, part of my journey on that path was not by choice. It was my mother who insisted that I, along with my brothers and sister, be in Sunday School and church every Sunday, no matter where we might be or live. With my father as an Air Force officer, we moved from base to base on an almost yearly basis when I was in grade school. It was not easy finding a church but we did and my mother made sure that we were in Sunday School and church every Sunday.

She laid out the first parts of the path that I was to walk and she showed me the direction but it was a path that only I could walk. And when I made the decision to continue walking on that path, I was able to do so because 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church, now 1st United Methodist Church, of Aurora, Colorado was there.

There are others who wish to walk this path to Christ. But can they find that way station, that place of rest and hope that will help them find the way on their own journey? The measure of excellence in the church today is how well each church responds to the needs of those in its community, to find the path to Christ and to continue the journey in Christ. Each church must look at where it is, both spiritually and physically, and ask itself how can we help those in this community begin that walk to and with Christ?

The search for excellence in the church today is a search for Christ. It is also a part of our lives as Christians to seek the perfection that is Christ. We must be prepared to help others find Christ and we must find ways to seek the excellence that is Christ.  The challenge that each church faces today is to find those areas of excellence, the place where our gifts and our talents shine, and see how best they can be used to help others find Christ.

The invitation today is to open your heart and allow Christ to come in. Perhaps you are searching for Christ, now is the time to see Him right here. And perhaps like so many others you are seeking answers, much like Job. Now is the time to hear the answers to your questions. Or perhaps you are looking for ways in which you can help others to answer the questions that so often perplexed you. Now is the time to allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life, warm your heart as it did John Wesley’s heart that night in the Aldersgate Chapel so that when you leave this place, you leave on a new path, committed to the excellence that is Christ.

A New Vision (Part 1)

These are my thoughts for October 25, 2009, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. This is also Reformation Sunday. The Scriptures for today are Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28, and Mark 10: 46 – 52.

I am entitling this piece Part 1 because, at this moment, my sermon for next week at Dover is tentatively entitled “A New Vision”. I know that I will be basing part of that sermon on the Epistle/2nd reading from Revelations so that is where I got the title. But there is a new vision in the Scriptures for this Sunday, a physical new vision (from the Gospel reading in Mark) and a metaphorical new vision (from the Old Testament/1st reading from Job). So it makes sense to entitle this message the same and just have two parts. And with it also being Reformation Sunday, we are offered Luther’s vision of the new church.

There are those and there will be those who said that Job had it coming to him last week when God challenged him and asked where he, Job, was during the creation. In today’s Old Testament reading, it may be that Job is apologizing for even thinking that he somehow was on the same level as God, which, of course, he wasn’t and could never be.

But the Book of Job holds a place in the Bible, not as traditional wisdom but rather as an alternative wisdom. And, if you look at and read this book from that viewpoint, you can see an entirely different take on Job’s comments in verses 1 – 6. Traditional wisdom will tell us that one does not take on authority; one does not call authority to task. But the alternative tradition would have us first do that, to ensure that authority does keep its promises and does take care of the people.

As an educator, we have to deal many times with students’ conceptions and misconceptions about a topic. We may think that certain ideas are well understood but unless the ideas are tested, previous thoughts may not always be removed from the thinking process. We may teach that all things fall at the same rate but if you ask a high school student which falls faster, a feather or a hammer, they will inevitably answer a feather. The answer is more intuitive than you might think and unless proof is offered that the hammer and feather will fall at the same rate, they will hold onto the old idea. (“Hammer and feather experiment from Apollo 15”) One of the problems that we have in science education today is that there is no clear understanding in either the public sector or with many science teachers about what a hypothesis and theory are.

If we accept the notion that a scientific theory is “an idea about something, but not necessarily true”, then we will have troubles explaining the world around us and be unable to move beyond our present vision of this world. (“What makes science ‘science’?”) The notion of what a theory is and what a theory isn’t what a theory means and does are topics for discussion at another time and place (though you can see some of my thoughts in my piece “The Processes of Science”).

For the moment, we want to exam how Job’s vision of God has changed and what it means for us. Job, himself, will admit that he was babbling on about things and that he lived on the rumors of God. But now, having sought God and having encountered God, his vision and his understanding of God have changed. As it states in verse 6, he will no longer live on the “crusts of hearsay or the crumbs of rumor.”

To me, this means that Job has had his God moment, that singular moment when his understanding of who God is becomes complete. Too many people try to tell you how to have this moment and how it must fill certain requirements and what must happen. But this is the old way, the way that society in Jesus’ time was taught and what so many people try to teach us today. They know the way and their way is the only way; if you do not it as they prescribe, you will fall into purgatory or even worse, below.

But, like Bartimaeus, if we seek God through Christ, it will be our faith that gives us the ability to see. Note, in the beginning portions of the Gospel reading for today, the comment by Mark that many tried to keep Bartimaeus from crying out to Jesus as He walked by. They all recognized the authority that Jesus had but, in the old school way of thinking, in the traditional way of thinking, to approach authority figures, to demand of them anything was unthinkable and unacceptable.

But we also know that Jesus did the unthinkable and the socially unacceptable. He offered a vision that struck at the heart of society, at the ways that society worked and operated. He offered a vision that went beyond the status quo. On this Sunday, when we stop to consider what happened that day some five hundred years ago when Luther nailed the 95 theses on the church door, we need to begin our thought of a new vision for the church. It will be a vision, not of days long past, but of days to come. The power of any true vision is to offer an alternative to the existing reality, to think outside the box and around the corner.

Borrowing from Michael Riddell and his thoughts (Threshold of the Future), if a vision is to have the power to change reality, it has to be found in the arena of the imagination. The language of vision is found in symbol, myth, and poetry. When people use such language, there exists the probability that people can once again entertain the dream that things can be different from what they are now. Visions are nothing more than the operation of an alternative consciousness that allows the imagination to produce a new scenario that is radically different from the present one.

Martin Luther offered a new vision of the church that enabled the people to be empowered. John Wesley offered a new vision of the church that brought the words of the Gospel into reality and offered hope and renewal to all the people. In his faith, Bartimaeus gained his sight. Through Christ, God has heard our cry. It is now time for us to offer a new vision, a vision not of today but of tomorrow.

What Is Service?

This is the message for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 2 November 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Ruth 1: 1 – 18; Hebrews 9: 11 – 14; and Mark 12: 28 – 34.


The decades of the eighties and nineties brought us many memorable things. Unfortunately, much of what will be remembered as memorable will be viewed in terms of greed and avarice. But that doesn’t mean that nothing good was developed during that time. It’s just that the desires of a limited few and their greed took center stage in the events of the day and are still remembered today.

I think that the one positive thing that came out of that time was a definition of excellence as it applied to corporations and organizations. Much was written about how to find excellence in an organization and how organizations could develop excellence. But, since the decades of the 80’s will forever be known as the "Me" decade, working together in an organizational setting and seeing that one’s success is tied to the success of others will never receive the glory and honor that it should.

One idea that came out of that period that needs to be repeated today is that innovation very rarely comes from the top of an organization but rather from the people at the bottom of the organizational chart. Time and time again, major innovations or modifications that result in new products come from someone working alone in the lab or tinkering on the production line.

The one product that I always like to mention, if for no other reason that it has ties to church choirs, is "Post-it notes." In 1974, Art Fry worked for the 3M company in product development. On Sundays he sang in the choir of the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, MN. He marked his choir book in the time-honored way of scraps torn from the bulletin. But sometimes the scraps of paper fell from the book and he lost his place. In describing the moment that began the development process, he remembered an adhesive that had been developed a number of years before.

The only problem with the adhesive was that it was not very sticky. And you want adhesives to be sticky. But if the goal was something that would stick for only a few moments, this was a perfect adhesive. It took him a year and a half but he finally had a workable idea that could be marketed. (From Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Royston M. Roberts., pg. 224 – 225)  The important thing about this development was that it involved an idea that the 3M corporation had basically shelved since it did not work and it involved Art Fry working on his own. But 3M is a company that encourages creativity and allows its employees to develop ideas that might work. In an environment where ideas are generated from the top down or where strict rules of conduct are employed, this would never have happened.

Even though we recognize that innovation and creativity come from below more times than from above, we still are a society that favors a top-down approach. We trust our leaders, even when our leaders betray our trust. We crave the power that a top-down approach gives to us; we relish the idea that we can tell someone below us what to do and criticize them or complain when they fail to do the job. In a top-down management system, we favor rules that determine our daily conduct. And woe to those individuals who challenge those rules or even the basic concept of the rules.

The scribe comes to Jesus asking which of the commandments is the greatest. He is not speaking of the Ten Commandments but rather the 613 individual statues that comprise the laws of Jewish society. Scholars of the law, of which this particular scribe may have been one, divided this collection into "heavy" or "great" commandments and "light" or "little" commandments. So, instead of asking about the relationship between individuals, the scribe was simply engaged in a minor philosophical debate.

Jesus answers first with what has become known as the Shema, after the first word of Deuteronomy 6: 4. In Hebrew, this word means "hear." The Shema became the Jewish confession of faith, recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. To this day, every synagogue service begins with the Shema.

But Jesus did not stop there. He followed with the commandment from Leviticus 19: 18 that everyone should love their neighbor. It is a logical and natural development that one’s love for their neighbors is like one’s love for God.

The Gospel passage from Mark for today ends with the comment that after that day no one approached Jesus with any questions. Up until that time, the Pharisees and scribes had been testing Jesus, seeking to find some way to discredit his teachings. But He had answered every question truthfully and in a way consistent with God’s law, if not always consistent with society’s laws. In doing so, Jesus reminded the leaders that society was more than not necessarily hierarchical. You cannot love your neighbor less than you love God. And you cannot declare your love for God without declaring your love for your neighbor.

By now, you know that Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia, fascinates me. One day he got tired of his daughter, Jan, being hassled and ostracized. One particular boy in the school called her names and repeatedly threw her books down. After a few weeks, Clarence Jordan decided that he had head enough of this harassment and that he was going to ask Jesus to excuse him for fifteen minutes while he taught this young man a lesson. But his daughter pointed out that one could not be excused from being a Christian for any length of time. And his daughter was not willing to accept the alternative that her father proposed.

As the story is told, two weeks passed and no words were spoken about the young man. When Clarence asked his daughter what had happened, she replied that the boy no longer bothered her. As she said, "I got to figuring that I’m a little taller than Bob and I could see him coming before he could see me. When I’d see him, I’d begin smiling and waving and gushing at him like I was just head over heels in love with him . . . like I was going to eat him up. The other kids got to teasing him about me having a crush on him, and now, the only time I see him is when he peeps around the corner to see if I’m coming. If I am, he goes all the way round the outside."(From the Misfits chapter of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)  When we apply God’s love to our situations, things work out a whole lot better than when we apply society’s rules.

Jesus sought a society where equality was the standard, where everyone had an equal chance. This meant that He had to give up some of his power. In most organizations, nothing can be done unless someone gives their permission for it to be done. Many times, an individual with no control or input into the problem demand that all items be brought before a committee before any meaningful decision is made. And committee meetings, as we all know, are the best way to kill a wonderful idea. How many times have we heard that it is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission?

In a top-down model, those in power don’t want to give away their power. They don’t want others to do things that would dilute their power. They are unwilling to share or teach others how to do their job. They are unwilling to let others do their job because the new kid on the block may do it better.

Jesus gave His disciples and followers the authority to act in His name, even when they did not think that they were ready to do so. One can only imagine Jesus pacing along the shores of the Sea of Galilee waiting for them to come back. Were Jesus a "normal" leader, He surely must have been worried about the damage that the disciples and followers did in the countryside. But we know that they came back, telling tales of great success and wonderful miracles accomplished in the name of Jesus. Yes, some did come back reporting failure and showing that they still didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to do. You get that when people are brought up expecting to follow orders and not think on their own. And though he was not like us, his expression often times showed that human side of his life, "Oh, faithless and perverse generation, how long must I suffer thee?" (Matthew 18: 17 – 18)

Even though he may have been exasperated, Jesus still gave them the authority and eventually the disciples got the knack of carrying out the mission. By delegating to individuals the authority to act in His name, Jesus was delegating power. There was much work to do and Jesus gave to those who followed him the authority to act in his name. "The fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few" (Matthew 9: 36 – 37), he said. It was not a haphazard delegation of authority though.

When Henry II cried out, "Who will rid me of this man?" he was not asking for someone to kill Thomas á Becket. Thomas á Becket was not a threat to the king but simply was against the way the king wanted to run the English government. But with no explicit orders, and with no more authority than that, four of the king’s knights went out and did just that.

Jesus’ delegation of authority was very specific. When he sent them out on that memorable mission, he told them what to do, what to wear, and whom to talk to.

Delegation of authority requires a tremendous amount of trust. Those in leadership roles must trust those to whom they give authority to act. If leaders act or micromanage everything done, they cannot delegate. If they cannot delegate, people working for them become nothing more than "yes-men" and nothing gets done.

Leaders must share information and the authority that comes with that information. In this way, they are able to empower others to do the right things in ways that offer fulfillment, not only on an individual level but overall as well. (Adapted from "He Gave Them Authority" in Jesus CEO – Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones.)

Jesus not only gave people authority; he held them accountable. Accountability had nothing to do with blame. It has everything to do with individual and corporate growth. Accomplished tasks breed self-confidence. Self-confidence breeds success. And success breeds more success. We have to have accountability because it is the cornerstone of empowerment and personal growth. If no one is accountable for a project, no one gets to grow through the experience of it.

Holding people accountable allows them the opportunity to sign their name on a portrait of success, no matter how small that portrait might be. It gives them their next growth challenge in a defined and measurable form. To treat them as equals is to hold them accountable.

When groups show that accountable is to be worn like a medal of success rather than as an albatross of failure, a decision by the way that is generated at the top of the organizational structure, then people are more eager to wear it. In saying that "whatever you ask for, will be done. Whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. Whatever you bind up, will be bound." (Matthew 18: 18) Jesus held people accountable. (Adapted from "He Held People Accountable" in Jesus CEO – Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones.)

I bring this all up because today is the day we honor all those who have gone before us, the saints of whom we sang in the opening hymn. We celebrate their work because it is by their work that we are able to do ours.

We can study the history of our faith and proudly say that we are where we are today because our ancestors in the faith raised their voices, made bold decisions and prayed and taught the faith. We are where we are today because our ancestors were willing to go to jail, to be thrown to the lions and be burned at the stake. We are here today because our ancestors fought for religious freedom, braved and explored a new world to establish churches in America and spread the Gospel. They did all these things because they loved Jesus. They did also because they loved us, their descendants whom they would never know. They loved us so much that they wanted to make sure the Gospel was here for us. We are who we are today because of their faith, their devotion, and their bravery.

But those are not our only saints. It is also true that we are here today, we are who we are, and in the condition we find ourselves because we also had biological and spiritual ancestors who sat on their hands, who cared only for themselves, who thought little about the impact of the actions on future generations. We are also the products of those who were apathetic in their witness. We are the descendants of those who advocated a racially segregated society. We are related to those who opposed women being ordained. And we may have to admit that some in our heritage just shrugged their shoulders in the face of oppression and greed. We are products both of those ancestors who fought for the faith and of those who fought against the faith. We are the descendants of both sets of grandparents. We have saints in our blood and skeletons in our closet.

We are the spiritual grandchildren of all wonderful stewards who gave their all, and of the generations of curmudgeons who threw water on the Spirit’s fire every chance they got. What types of ancestor do we, who by baptism are part of the community of saints to come, hope to be?

We are the potential saints for future generations. We are the shoulders on which others will stand. Will we be the ancestors who sat on their hands or ancestors who raised their hands? Sometimes we forget that we aren’t just living our busy lives; we are also laying a foundation, molding a future, and establishing a legacy. (From "Saints and Sinners" by Mary W. Anderson in The Christian Century (October 18, 2003)

What shall our legacy be in the years to come? Those we admire, as witnesses to Christ are the ones we believe are the best examples of living the simple commands of Jesus to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves. It is a love that has been the center portion of the Bible.

Naomi was worried about the future for her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. The laws of the time said that the brothers of their late husbands were obligated to take care of them but their husbands had no brothers. So there was no way to insure the future for either woman. The options for either woman are not that promising. Hence, Naomi’s exclamation that both Orpah and Ruth return to their homelands, for only there will they be able to find a future.

But Ruth, in verse 16, gives what is considered a classic expression of love and loyalty, "Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried." (Ruth 1: 16 – 17) The love that Ruth expresses for Naomi is a reflection of God’s love for each of us, no matter who we are or where we are from. We will see in the story of Ruth that God’s love is unconditional and that he will provide. After all, if God does not provide in some way or another, then Ruth will not meet Boaz and their descendants will not give us the house of David.

The story of redemption found in Ruth is a reminder of what our lives should be. Ours is a community founded on the express belief that God loves us, so much so that he would provide for our future. Ours is a community founded on a simple expression that the love we have for God is expressed by our love for others. Methodism grew out of John Wesley’s conviction that there was more to the Gospel than praying that the poor find comfort in their world.

The hallmark of organizations during the eighties and nineties was service. If organizations could provide good service in some way, then success was possible. The success of this organization will be measured by the love that others find when they come to this place.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice was for us and that nothing we do will ever match it. Placing our faith and confidence in what has already served its purpose and passed away, things like the rituals encompassed in the Mosaic Law, cannot help us. We cannot expect a new system of service and love to be handled in the old ways of management.

Jesus brought to us a new system and called for us to see a new way of service. On a day when we think of the service of the Saints, we are again reminded that being a saint means living in hope and not in despair. It means forgiving, not judging; loving, not despising; lifting up, not tearing down. We are challenged to strengthen our own shoulders, so that through our service and devotion today, the ancestors of tomorrow will be able to sing the praises of the saints as well.

Serving God

This is the message for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 5 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Ruth 1: 1 – 18; Hebrews 9: 11 – 14; and Mark 12: 28 – 34.


The one thing that has marked my career and personal life these past fifty years has been my mobility. As the son of a career Air Force officer, we lived in a number of places and in a number of settings. In terms of school, I went to six different elementary schools, two different junior high schools, and three different high schools. The longest time that I ever attended any one school was just short of two years and those were the two years that I was at Bartlett High School in Memphis where I graduated from high school in 1968.

To some, this was a very negative childhood because it kept me from developing life-long friends, perhaps the central part of childhood. And while it is true that I do not have many friends from my high school and earlier days, I see me life in a different light. For I got to see parts of this country and the world and do many things that others never get the chance to do. But, sometimes when I think about it, and I look at the friends my brothers have from all their time in one place, I wonder if those critics were not correct.

It seems like whenever my family moved from one base to the next, it was always during the school year and I was always coming into a new situation, a stranger in a strange land, if you will. When you move into a new place, you are never sure of what the “rules” are.

But over a period of time, I quickly learned the sense of the new community I was in and, whether I might agree or disagree, I knew what the rules were. But when the community is changing each year, as it was for me, you quickly learn to trust your own path and not worry about what others say and do. If what I knew in my heart and soul is right and that is what I do, then I knew that I would be accepted. But if what I did was not acceptable to the community, well, I was never going to be accepted any way.

In one sense, I can empathize with the story of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah and what they went through, as we read this morning from the Old Testament. In the society of that time, it was up to each family to take care of their own. When the husband died, it was the sons who assumed the responsibility of caring for their mother. Remember that one of Jesus’ last acts on the cross was to transfer the care of his mother, Mary, to his disciple, John.

Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)

But, as we read today, ten years after Naomi’s husband died, both of her sons died, leaving her without the traditional support network. That is why, in verse 7, Orpah, Ruth and Naomi left Moab where they had been living for Judah where there was food and support. But this support would have only been for Naomi since Ruth and Orpah were Moabites and not Jews. That is why Naomi said to her daughters-in-law they would be better off going back to their own country where they might find support among their own families.

But Ruth, in the emotionally charged response that ends the reading from the Old Testament reading today, declared her determination to remain with Naomi. Her own affirmation of faith is especially striking because it means that in going with Naomi and following the God of Israel, Ruth is giving up all claims to everything she ever knew. Like Abraham, Ruth chose to forsake her family and homeland to follow God.

Why would Ruth do this? It is not stated in this reading but something about the way Naomi lived must have said to Ruth that God was truly the one God.

The theme of the Book of Ruth is that God’s love is open to all, even non-Israelites. God’s plan has always been to bring all the nations of the world to Him. The covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants was so that all nations would be blessed through the nation of Israel.

The Book of Ruth also demonstrates the concept of loyal love, the kind of love that holds its promise. It was that loyalty that Ruth displayed both to Naomi and to God. It is that same loyalty that we sing of in the chorus to Hymn #530, “Are Ye Able?”

It is Ruth’s loyalty to God and her faith in God that could have only come from seeing how God was a part of Naomi’s life. And it will be her faith that is rewarded, as we will read next week.

It is that same loyalty and faith that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel reading for today. The Pharisees and scribes are trying to trick Jesus with their questions about the commandments and the law. What Jesus calls the first commandment, that there is only one God and He is the God of Israel, was the essence of the Jewish faith. The manner in which Jesus made that statement was a summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments. In giving his second great commandment, Jesus summarized the last five of the Ten Commandments, those that deal with the treatment of people.

I found it interesting that none of the commentaries that I have access to make any type of comment about the last sentence in the reading for today. Jesus tells his questioners that they are very close to the Kingdom of God and then Mark (as well as Matthew) writes that they never asked any more questions of Jesus.

In some sense, I think Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. For this group who were among the most vocal of Jesus critics were also among the most vocal and the most public in their own expression of the belief that there was only one God. But righteousness is only a show if your actions do not support your work. It was almost as if Jesus was saying to this group of questioners, you are close but you still have one step to take.

In Hebrews, the writer has been telling us that Jesus, through His sacrifice, offered more that any worldly priest could ever offer. His loyalty to God produced greater rewards than anyone could imagine. In being loyal to God first, our perspective changes. And how others see us changes as well. The task we face this day is serving God with all our heart and all our soul. If we serve God is this way, there is no way people cannot help but notice and then they began to see God and know God. The question then will be “Are Ye Able?”

What Do You See?

I am preaching this morning at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church in Lewisboro, NY. Here are my thoughts for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.

Today is called Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that brings gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, we, as United Methodists, focus on two other Sundays. The first is Heritage Sunday in April when we honor our heritage as members of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches and the merger of the two denominations. The second is Aldersgate Day on May 24th, when we celebrate John Wesley’s “heart warming experience” at the Aldersgate Chapel in London. This experience was crucial to Wesley’s own life and it became the touchstone of the Wesleyan movement.

But I think that we need to also consider today as more than simply a date on the liturgical calendar. Reformation Sunday commemorates October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther’s posted his 95 theses or propositions on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was prompted to do this by the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days to sell what were known as indulgences. People bought these indulgences from church authorities in the belief that such purchases would enable them to enter heaven more easily. The money raised was used by the authorities in ways that had little to do with the work of the church.

Luther had become alarmed by this practice because, through his study of the Bible, he had come to understand that God was a God of grace and love, One who reached out to His children, One who understood their fallen humanity and forgave them. Further, God promised eternity to all with faith in Him.

Luther came to see righteousness as a relationship with God and one that could not be accomplished by anything that we do. Yes, God does demand moral purity from us; yes, our sin does earn us everlasting condemnation. But God Himself took on the flesh and bone of humanity through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we with faith would not be condemned. God gives all who have faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life.

In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”, an experience that I think would be later matched by Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. He came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.

The sale of indulgences could be done because many people labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status that God demanded from us but that we, individually, were unable to obtain. If we are unable to obtain the perfection that God demands of us, then there is no hope in our lives. And those without hope will eagerly grab at anything that offers hope, no matter how slim or foolish the chance may be.

When Luther’s preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (1)

There are two things that I find interesting in reviewing the history of Reformation Sunday. I did not know until my preparations for this sermon that Luther’s life was in danger; I did know or understood that he was labeled a heretic or one who perverted the faith. It may be that we don’t want to be reminded that the church, in whatever denominational form it may take, does not treat well those who speak out against the church.

The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life.

It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. . I am reminded of the Buffalo Springfield song from 1966,

There’s somethin’ happening here,

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

There’s a man with a gun over there,

Tellin’ me I gotta beware.

I think it’s time we stop,

Hey, what’s that sound,

Everybody look what’s going down.

We look around today and we see death, destruction, and despair. We see violence in the world and in our own cities. We see people who claim that there is no God because no God would allow such events to happen.

We read of authors who claim that there can be no God because everything can be rationally explained. For these individuals, there is no need for faith because there is nothing in which to have faith. But, as the writer of Hebrews, wrote, faith is a belief in things unseen. And those who do not seek God will not see God.

We hear and see preachers who proclaim that the death, destruction, and despair that are so much a part of this world today are a sign of God’s wrath for our sins. We see people who almost joyfully welcome the death and destruction because, for them, it marks the second coming of the Lord. It almost seems that these individuals rejoice when there is another event of cataclysmic proportions. Instead of working to stop the death, destruction, and despair, these individuals say there is no hope unless we create God’s kingdom here on earth.

These individuals see the death, destruction and despair of the world as a sign that we need to lead more pious lives. And leading such pious lives can only be accomplished through an imposition of God’s law. But this is the society of the Old Testament, a society so entangled in the law that it could not grow. It was a society that could not offer hope. The priests of that time were the priests that the writer of Hebrews warns us against in today’s Epistle reading. (2)

It should be no surprise that there is a close correlation between those who cling to a view of a secular kingdom on earth with its foundation in the Old Testament and to those with conservative political attitudes that fight vehemently against calls for change in the social, economic, and political structures today. It is a world in which God was available to only a select few and it is only those few who could meet God. To think of God as involved in the affairs of the world is utterly abhorrent. In this view of the world, God is isolated from the world and the world is without God – except, of course, for those who are possessors of the privilege. It is a world in which there is no promise for tomorrow. It is a world in which one cannot grow. It is world in which there can be no hope.

People will buy the trinkets; people will buy the little scraps of cloth because those selling such things are the only ones offering hope. Yes, it is a false hope but it is the only hope that many people see today. But it is not just the sale of these modern day indulgences that threatens the church today.

We live in a culture that emphasizes personal wealth and material prosperity. We seek to put our luxuries before other people’s necessities. Remember that Job has endured almost every possible calamity that we could imagine. He lost his property, he lost his children, he lost his wife and he lost his health. All of his friends proclaimed with the certainty of true believers that these calamities were the cause of Job’s sin; their responses were the responses of the present world.

We see and hear in churches today messages that speak to our private needs and desires, not the needs of the world. We hear messages about the importance of paying one’s bills on time, not about what it means for us that God in Christ became a human being. We have to realize that Jesus promised us enough to take care of our basic needs, not grant us prosperity. We do not need messages that proclaim that wealth will gain us entry into heaven; we need to hear that it is God’s grace that opens the doors of the Kingdom.

For Job’s friends, it did not matter that Job was a righteous man; he must have done something so incomparably horrible to bring about God’s wrath. But Job would not hold to that thought; in fact, Job demanded to see God and Job demanded an explanation from God. Job went looking for God. In the end, Job comes to realize that a true understanding of God was beyond his powers. (3) It is a realization that comes from seeing and encountering God, not from some rational explanation.

Like Job, we want the answers to the questions. But we are not necessarily willing to seek God to gain the answers; if gaining the answers means giving up all that we have, we are like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but not give up his possessions. We walk away from Jesus, perhaps to someone with a softer message.

In a world so full of death, destruction, and despair, it is quite easy to lose hope. And when you lose hope, it is quite easy to grab on to whatever comes by that looks like hope.

We are reminded that Christ came to this world to offer hope to all. But it was not a hope that comes through the present age. Any hope that is based on society’s view of the world is a hope locked into the present. It is a false hope because there cannot be a tomorrow.

A world without hope is a static world. It is a world in which things do not change. Society does not change, thoughts do not change, and churches do not change. But in Christ we see God, not as some static figure of history but as living presence. God is found in the openness of the world, not in the static, timeless world of society. Jesus changed the way we should see life.

Christ came as a servant, not as a master. He came not as a revealer of some ideological system but as one who gave Himself in such a way that He affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He came as one who was prepared to risk His truth and His life within the openness of this world. He refused to identify Himself through an open display of power but the manner in which He lead His life.

If it were possible for the blind man on the side of the road to speak to us today, he might speak of the lack of hope that was in his life before Jesus walked by. Remember that his friends commanded him to be quiet as Jesus was approaching. But the blind man would not be quiet because he knew that Jesus was the true offer of hope. It was his faith in Jesus that enabled the blind man to see. (4)

We have a great opportunity before us today. We have the opportunity to bring back hope to a world that is quickly becoming devoid of hope. Instead of a world that is Christian in nature, we should be looking for a world in which Christians live. We cannot create a world in which our spiritual lives and secular lives are separate lives, for to do so is to create a world without God and leave God without the world. Rather than providing society with stability and unity through the imposition of some metaphysical formula or the imposition of some religious or institutional means, we should accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by pointing out his presence as He works in this world.

Instead of seeing the world as one that requires Biblical faith to fight society, we should learn to read the story of the Bible with new eyes, eyes of the blind man, and gain a new understanding of the world around us. This new vision will enable us to understand that the word “truth” in Hebrew means that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in any system of thought. God is true because God does what He says He will do. He becomes known as God not because we organize Him into a total system of understanding but because of what He has done and what He will do.

This new vision, which we gain because Jesus Christ became the high priest, allows us to see the world not in biblical revelation of God but in the living God of the present time. And when we see God as living in the present instead of the past we see God calling us to respond to the new possibilities of life, towards the new possibilities of an open community of God.

Jesus spoke of living as a servant first. He viewed others with kindness and compassion. He commanded us to do likewise. Kindness and compassion are not theoretical principles that we reflect upon and then apply to the world; kindness and compassion are the very principles that we are to live by. They are the ways that the world is reformed. Those who puff themselves up or belittle someone cannot truthfully proclaim the Gospel because they no longer live the Gospel.

The challenge for you today is to see the empty Cross, to see the empty tomb and to open your hearts to the power of the Risen Savior. The challenge is for you today to open your hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. The challenge is one that has been given countless times before today and will be given countless times after today.

Remember when John the Baptist was arrested and was awaiting his execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus and asked if He, Jesus, was the Messiah? What was Jesus’ reply? It was, “tell him what you see, that the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the sick are healed.” Tell him that there is hope.

And remember the women at the well? What did she say after her encounter with Jesus? Remember how she ran and told all of her friends and neighbors to come and see this man who gave her hope and forgave her of her sins.

And remember that Sunday some two thousand years ago when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb? Remember how the angel told them to go and tell the disciples what they saw, that Jesus was not in the tomb.

It has and it will always be, “go and tell others what you see.” And when you do, when you meet that challenge that is put before you today, others will see in you the Risen Christ. And when you meet the challenge, others will see that there is hope in the world, a hope found in the power of the Christ, our Lord and Savior.

So my friends, I ask you today, what do you see?


(1) From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html

(2) Hebrews 7: 23 – 28

(3) Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17

(4) Mark 10: 46 – 52