“What’s Inside?”

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this Sunday, 10 November 2019, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C. Services begin at 10 but you can come early and practice with the choir!

I always wondered why so many United Methodists churches in the Midwest look alike but then I found out that there was a collection of blueprints church designers and builders could pick from when building a new church.  Still, seeing the outside of the church really doesn’t tell you what is going on inside the church.  Does one feel the presence of the Holy Spirit or is it just another building?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind, wrote

“Jesus never asked anyone to form a church, ordain priests, develop elaborate rituals and institutional cultures, and splinter into denominations. His two great requests were that we “love one another as I have loved you” and that we share bread and wine together as an open channel of that interabiding love.”

Haggai reminds the people of Israel that they were not simply rebuilding a building; they were building a home for God, a place for the Holy Spirit.  In doing so, they were able to better discern God’s presence in their lives.

Stewardship is about finding ways to make God’s presence in our lives through the ministry of the church.  It is not found in the old ways but in the new, of considering what Jesus did and how we can best continue to do that. ~~Tony Mitchell

“Where Is the Position of Power?”

Here are my thoughts for the back page of the bulletin for this Sunday, October 21, 2018 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) at Fishkill UMC.

I am editing some correspondence between my grandfather and my father at a time when my father was beginning his military career. My grandfather (who was a Colonel) keep reinforcing the point that the focus must be on the men under my father’s command.  There was also a discussion about those officers who were only interested in their career and did not understand the nuances of their position.

In one sense, these conversations presage conversations that would take place in the 1980’s about the nature of excellence in business, education, and even the church.  If you do not understand the field you are working in and/or you are only interested in the bottom line and how you will personally benefit, the odds are you will fail.  Even today, may do not understand this.

God asks Job who has the power and can Job match it.  Jesus points out that the potential power that comes with being a disciple is meaningless unless the disciple is willing to forgo that very power.  It will take the disciples many months to understand this point.

We see a world today where power is sought for power’s sake, even in the church and not for what it can do for the people.

Where do you see the position of power?  It is for you or is it for others? ~~Tony Mitchell

“Follow Me”

This will be on the back page of the 5 November 2017 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin for Fishkill United Methodist Church.  We will be celebrating All Saints Day this Sunday.

All Saints’ Day is not normally associated with Methodism (see Who Are Your Saints?).  But when you consider that tradition and experience are as important to our faith as Scripture and reason, it makes sense that we think about those who walked this journey before us.

Our saints are the ones who showed us the way through their work and their efforts; their lives exemplified their faith.

The Israelites only entered the Promised Land when the faith leaders took the Ark of the Covenant before them into the River Jordan, stopping the flow of the river and allowing the people to cross.

The religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time put on a great show but were never willing to go beyond the show.  They found it very easy to set the rules and tell others what to do but were unwilling to do it themselves.  Jesus’ leadership model was unlike anything they had ever seen; it was about taking on tasks rather than telling others how to do them.  Our saints were the ones who took on the tasks so that our journey with Christ was possible.

Do I tell people how to come to Christ or do I, through my life, my words, my deeds, and actions, show Christ so others can find Him?

On this day, we remember those who through their words, actions, thoughts, and deeds earned the title “good and faithful servant.”  In the coming years, will we be the saints remembered? ~~Tony Mitchell

“Renewal, Revival, and Rejoicing”

This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, October 19th, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5; and Luke 18: 1 – 8; I focused primarily on the passage from Jeremiah but used thoughts from the other two readings as well.

When I thought about the title for this message, my first thought was something like “Destruction, Desolation, and Despair.” But that is a rather depressing title and neither the direction that I wanted to take the message nor indicative of the Scriptures for this weekend. So I looked again at the Scriptures and I thought about it and came up with “Renewal, Revival, and Rejoicing.”

But you have to realize that from destruction, desolation, and despair, to renewal, revival, and rejoicing, you have to think about what was happening to the Israelites some 3000 years ago and again some 2000 years ago and in this country some 200 or so years ago and perhaps even today.

The Old Testament reading comes at a time when the people of Israel are returning home after exile in Babylon. But they are returning to a country that has been completely and totally destroyed. The best and brightest of the Israelite society have been taken away and it would seem that there is no way that the country can be rebuilt. Amidst the desolation and destruction, there is only despair; there is no hope.

It was that way when during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps there wasn’t much destruction since the country had been rebuilt but there certainly had to be desolation and despair. The country was occupied by a foreign power and was governed by a group of political and religious authorities who were more interested in their own power and sought favor from the Roman occupiers. Many of the people felt that there was no hope, no mercy, and certainly no justice unless, of course, one had money and power.

And two hundred years ago in this country, amidst the destruction and desolation that followed the American Revolution, there had to be a degree of despair. Because of the revolution, many of the clergy affiliated with the Anglican Church, the state church of the colonies and England, had left for the safety of England rather than stay through the struggles. This left many in this country without pastoral leadership.

In these three eras of history, there was clearly destruction and desolation and most certainly there was despair. To see hope and promise was very, very difficult if not even seemingly possible. And today, when there are still homeless, there is still hunger and sickness, it is quite easy to sense the despair amidst the destruction and desolation in the land that many see as the 21st century Promised Land, the “land of milk and honey.”

But against that background, against the attitude that perhaps there is no hope, no promise for a better tomorrow and no future, there is hope, there is a promise. It began with Jesus walking the roads of the Galilee, speaking about the promise and not just speaking but offering hope through healing, feeding, and prayer. It continued with Paul offering advice to Timothy, his successor.

Paul told Timothy to stick with what he, Timothy, had been taught and not get caught up with the spiritual junk food that so many other preachers of that time were offering. You know those type of preachers, they are still with us today.

They speak with smooth tongues and syrupy sweet voices, offering untold riches if you will send them your money. Maybe that would be the way to go, after all when they have your money they go out and buy expensive suits and fancy cars for themselves. I don’t think that is what is in the Gospel.

And I don’t trust those preachers who tell you that all the problems of the world are somebody else fault and that there is no hope for you, a lost sinner. I’ve heard these preachers before and all I know is that they do not speak the same words that Jesus spoke nor is what they offer what God offered me.

A God who would send His son to the world to save me from my sins because He loved me would not send a preacher to say there is no hope. Nor would He have His Son, Jesus, tell us that it was easy to get into heaven.

Paul told Timothy to keep preaching the Gospel, preach it with intensity and challenge the people. He reminded Timothy that it would be hard work and it would be difficult but it would be worth it when it was all said and done.

The call for mercy, justice, and hope can never be quieted. Jesus told the people about the persistent widow, who would call for justice and mercy from a judge corrupt beyond belief.

Just like the people who heard Jesus tell this story, we know how this story turns out. But Jesus said that the judge will ultimately grant the widow justice because it was the right thing to do.

For us today, in a world perhaps without hope or promise, we have to understand that God will not forget us; we have to understand that God will respond to our cries for help. But those who call out must continue to watch, listen, and work towards the outcome. Too many people today call out for God, “Help me, God!” and turn away when He does not answer immediately.

But as they are turning away, there is God reaching out. It isn’t that God didn’t respond; it is that we were not looking when the help was offered. Here the words of Jeremiah again,

Be ready. The time’s coming”—God’s Decree—“when I will plant people and animals in Israel and Judah, just as a farmer plants seed. And in the same way that earlier I relentlessly pulled up and tore down, took apart and demolished, so now I am sticking with them as they start over, building and planting.

These words were spoken to a people amidst the destruction of their country, amidst the despair of a life without hope. These were the words of God saying there was the promise of renewal and revival, of rejoicing in a new beginning.

And when the people of this country cried out for pastoral leadership, John Wesley sent the circuit riders to preach and teach among the people of this country. His actions, by the way, were in defiance of the religious leaders who would not respond to the cries of the people.

And so here we are today, hearing the words of God, seeking to renew our lives and revive our spirits, rejoicing in the thought that through Christ we are saved. In the darkness of times we know that we have not been forgotten, that we are not lost but have been found and if we accept Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior, we have hope for the future.

We have that single opportunity today to renew our lives, revive our spirit and rejoice in Christ. Amen!

“The Death of Mark Twain and Other Rumors”

I am at at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (B); the Scripture readings for today are Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

As perhaps some of you know, I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and I went to college in Missouri and Iowa. Now, I will admit that, even though I have lived in quite a number of different places throughout the years, at times my knowledge of specific local areas can be quite limited.

It was that way when I first began college at Truman State University, or as it was known back then, Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I automatically assumed that they knew that when I said Memphis, they knew that it was Memphis, Tennessee. I quickly found out that, for many individuals in the northeast section of Missouri, that when one said they were from Memphis, they were referring to Memphis, Missouri, a town about 4o miles from Kirksville, and not necessarily the home (not home town) of Elvis.

Now, as it happens, Kirksville and Memphis are both in the Mark Twain District of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, just as Mahopac and Beacon are parts of the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference. And Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is also in this district.

And here is where it may get confusing. While Hannibal may be the home of Mark Twain, it is not where Samuel Clemens was born. Samuel Clemens was born, not in Hannibal, but in Florida, Missouri, a few miles outside Hannibal. You can imagine what I think every time I drive over to the Warwick area across the river to preach at one of the churches in that area and I have to pass through Florida, New York.

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, and he would move to Hannibal when he was about five. Clemens’ birth was during a visit to our Solar System by Halley’s Comet and he often said that he would die when it again visited this solar system. In 1909, Twain is quoted as saying:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” (From Wikipedia)

He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, the day after this most famous interplanetary visitor passed by the earth. Each year, at this time, we are reminded of this by the Orionid meteor shower, an event that occurs when the earth passes through the debris left by Halley’s comet against a backdrop of the constellation Orion. No doubt Mr. Clemens smiles as we are reminded of his actual death and not those occasions where others said that he had died.

It was that line in Job that we read this morning where Job speaks of only knowing God as a rumor that prompted me to think of Mr. Clemens, his life and the reports of his death, both real and rumored. Twice in his life people thought that he had died, which lead him to state “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” After the second of these instances when it was thought that he had again died, he wrote that he would make an exhaustive investigation of the report and he would let the people know if there was any truth to it.

Now, it is entirely possible that I could have gone to school in Kirksville and never learned about Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. It would have been a little bit difficult, I suspect, for the simple reason that I spent almost eight years in that particular part of Missouri and a better part of my life traveling up and down the Mississippi from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Arkansas and Mississippi delta around Memphis making it somewhat difficult to ignore the history and literature of that area.

If someone were to ask me how I would characterize my education at Truman, I would say that part of it was formal and in the classroom and part of it was informal and outside the classroom. But what I learned in the classroom often times gave me the skills and abilities to learn and understand what was outside the classroom. Too many times, we limit our education to a particular time and place and we are quite willing to stop learning when we are not in those formal settings.

In his own way, Samuel Clemens wrote about the nature of humanity, sometimes with wit, sometimes with sarcasm and sometimes with sorrow. Some of Clemens’ works have been severely criticized in today’s society for their lack of political correctness and I know that I would have difficulty repeating some of that language but Clemens wrote about what he saw. And I grew up in a culture that hadn’t changed much in the 100 years or so after Clemens wrote his stories. So I understood why he wrote what he did. I think that those who object to his writing often times have little knowledge or appreciation for other times and other places; I also know that there are many individuals who stopped learning after their formal education ended and it sometimes shows in their knowledge of the world and what transpires today. And sadly, that includes the church today.

Clemens objected to a society that put material well-being over substance of character. So it should not surprise you that Samuel Clemens, who made his mark on American literature with his observations and writings about our society, would have a few choice, and not so kind, words about American Christianity.

There is no doubt that Clemens believed in God but many of the things that drive people away from the church today were things that bothered Twain as well. He would write in an autobiography that was published in 2010, 100 years after his death,

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory as it is–in our country particularly and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree–it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime–the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

It would be interesting to delve into why Mr. Clemens characterized the Christianity of the Bible as he did. But that is a topic for another time and place.

But I know that there are many people who see Christianity, the church, and God in much the same way today. They see a vengeful God, willing to strike down any and all who incur His wrath. They see God as one would allow His people to enslave and persecute others in His name. They see a church that closes its doors to all those who seek God, who seek hope and promise in times of strife and need.

They are hard pressed to see God as a loving and caring God who sent His son to save us from being enslaved to sin and death. They cannot see Christ as the one who leads us to a path of peace in a sometimes often violent world.

And they often times back up their beliefs with the notion that what they believe is in the Bible. But they cannot identify where in the Bible it is or they take a particular statement and apply it out of context. Someone said that ours is a society that is so in love with the Bible that we are afraid to open it for fear of damaging it.

And there are those today who say that Jesus Christ was, at the minimum, a rumor, and at the most, a myth. In fact, there are many today who would deny the existence of any god (lower case) or supreme being simply because there is so much death and destruction on earth. What god would allow this to happen, especially if it is a god that professes to love his children.

The vengeful, wrathful God is often the picture presented in the Old Testament but when we say that we are Christians we are saying that we are a people of the New Testament as well and we have to know the difference.

We live in a time when many people hold to the view that we need to return to the Bible and enact laws based on the Bible. But if we are to return to a style of life that is outlined in the Old Testament, what are we to do with the New Testament, the very basis for us being Christian?

Is Christ a myth, a rumor, the product of some vast two-thousand year old conspiracy in which we have been misled and confused? If it is, how is it that we have gotten this far? How is it that this faith has lasted this long? There has to have been some degree of truth to what is said today, otherwise how can we even begin to think about being here?

And that is our problem, we can’t even begin to think of a God that would knowingly and willingly send His Son to live among us and show us a new path, a new life. We are not willing to see among the destruction, the death, the violence, and the hatred that God would love us completely and unconditionally. Unless we are willing to change our lives, it is almost impossible to see beyond the moment; unless we are willing to delve into the material in such a way that it becomes part of our lives, the words of the Bible will only be words and nothing more.

The Old Testament reading for today concludes a four-week study of the Book of Job. It is a part of the Wisdom section of the Old Testament and serves as a transition from the historical and law sections of the Old Testament to the writings of the prophets. It can be a tough book to read and study for it often challenges us to think beyond our own limits. It asks the question, “Is God a remote and omnipotent being who cares little for his children or is He a loving and caring God that will see that no trouble befalls his children?”

Job is identified as the richest man in the country and one who is without sin. Now, some preachers today would say that Job’s riches are the results of his righteousness. Were this the case then the premise of the story, that the loss of one’s material well-being and health would cause one to denounce God, might have some validity. In fact, it is the basis for many of the arguments put forth by Job’s friends.

Throughout the Book of Job, Job’s friends counsel him to either denounce God for all the suffering and pain that he has endured or at least acknowledge that he, Job, must have done something extremely terrible or wrong to receive such punishment. If you stop and think about it, these are often the very responses that so many people today would offer.

But against this backdrop of illness, death, destruction, abandonment, and the taunts of his friends, Job only asks to hear from God why this is all happening. In the reading from last week, God does speak to Job and now Job says to God, “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!”

There is a difference between the experience Job has with God and the experience of Job’s friends. They can only speak about God. Their knowledge of God was limited to what they had learned in school but never applied. They spoke in correct and beautiful terms but they were often words without meaning simply because they were simply words from a book, not from the heart and mind.

God will rebuke Job’s friends for their persistent argument against Job that God always blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that to question this was to question the justice of God, and so to add sin to the obvious heinous sin Job must have already committed to be in the state he was in. This would have been understood as mainstream, everyday, normal theology. God rejects that theology here. He calls it “what is not right” (“right” in the sense here of grounded in fact), while what Job has said is right.

Two things come from this. First, understand that John Wesley rejected this argument when he began his work among the poor and lower classes of 18th century England. Yet, even today, there are people who believe that wealth is a sign of righteousness and poverty the result of sin.

Second, we have to realize that Job’s understanding of God has gone from a routine understanding to a deeper, more personal understanding of God. In a time when many people would rather we not question God, our reading of Job tells us that to question God helps to bring a deeper understanding of faith. Now Job will tell you, as he does in the story, that because he now knows God more personally, he is even more aware of how much he does not know. It reflects a statement about any sort of research that one does, the answer to one question often leads to two or more new questions.

The reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; for those who are interested, here is a link to reading from Hebrews for today) further reflects the personal nature of knowing God. There is a distinct difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally.

I recognize that each person starts off only knowing about God. It is part of the learning process. It is why we have Sunday school and Bible classes. We have to start somewhere. But we must continue the learning or we will find ourselves in very difficult situations. It is like speaking of Memphis, Tennessee, when the other person is thinking of Memphis, Missouri.

I have never had any doubt in my mind, my heart, or my soul that Jesus Christ was and is real and that He died on the Cross to set me free from enslavement to sin and death. As I mentioned last week at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (In Search of Excellence in the Church Today), it was my mother, who through her insistence that my brothers and sister go to Sunday school every week, that put me on the path to Christ. But it is a path that I had to walk alone, though often in the company of others headed in the same direction. And the path that I walked lead me to 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st United Methodist Church) of Aurora, Colorado, where I found a community that would nurture me on my journey.

The Gospel lesson for today tells us of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. This is the second such healing in Mark and it is a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke. Matthew says that two blind men were healed and the story ends with their healing; Luke wrote that one man was healed but he does not identify the man. Luke does point out that the man, whomever he was, followed Jesus after the healing.

Each of the four Gospel writers has a reason for telling their stories. Each of the reasons is played out in how those stories are told. We do know that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospels. Mark may very well be the young man introduced to us in the Easter story. And there is evidence to suggest that Mark accompanied Peter to Rome and that he compiled the stories and doings of Jesus while he was in the Galilee. It is quite easy to see Mark listening to Peter as Peter preached to the people and then questioning him for more details about Jesus and what transpired.

As Robin Griffith-Jones writes in his book, The Four Witnessess,

We certainly should not assume that Mark was the first to tell the story of Jesus’ work “from beginning to end.” Mark’s narrative may very well have grown out of regular recitation at church gatherings. Fewer people in those days were taught to read, and far more instruction was passed on by word of mouth.

That Mark would identify the blind man who was healed and then followed Jesus would suggest that he, Bartimaeus, became a disciple of note and that he was well known in the early church.

The early church, the church before Constantine and its formal organization, was built upon the stories that people told about Jesus. But it was more than the stories; it was about how the people who told the stories had been changed by Jesus. The stories were more than words; they were a continuation of the Good News and what the Good News meant to individuals. There was an acknowledgment that something had happened to them and it changed their lives.

In today’s society, there are those, like Bartimaeus, who seek Christ. And we will be the ones who they will ask. “Is it true what they say about Jesus, that He came to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and bring freedom to the oppressed?”

Some, like the disciples did with Bartimaeus and others before him, will rebuke those who seek. But Jesus always told them to let them come to Him; this time, they understood through Bartimaeus’ cry that he truly sought Jesus and they let him come. How many times have we rejected someone because we felt they were not worthy to be in the church?

Too many others will quote the words of the Bible, saying that you have to know about God and Christ before you can be saved. But words alone will not feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked or bring freedom to the oppressed.

We know what Christ has done for us and it is important that we tell the story, not just to those who will listen but to those who will not as well.

The difference is that we will also show that the words are true, through our thoughts, deeds, and actions. If we speak with words that are hollow, we run the risk of making the story of Jesus Christ truly a myth and his life only a rumor. But if we tell the story as others have, as the encounter each one of us has had, people will know that it is not a rumor and it is not a myth.

That is the way the early church began, telling the story in not only words but in the way lives were changed. The story was told one person at a time. But others heard the story and they saw the changes in the lives and they began to ask why and how.

So we proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in each of us. The challenge we face is to know the story, not just in our minds, but in our thoughts, words, and deeds. If you came today seeking Christ, you will find Him here. You are invited to open your hearts and minds. If you came today seeking to know more, you will gain that knowledge. All one has to do is open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit.

So, just as the meteors that showered the evening skies last week remain us of Mark Twain, so too does that warm feeling that we have in hearts remind us that Christ is alive and living in us this day and for the days to come.

The Uninvited Guest

This has been edited since it was first posted.

When I first began graduate school at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) one of my professors spoke of the time you could take the train from the campus to Crump Stadium for the football games. When he spoke of this, we had this image of games in perhaps the 1930s or 40s and not the 1950s when they actually occurred. Those of us who heard him speak of those games knew about the train, or rather the railroad, since the tracks ran right by the campus. We, or some of us, knew of Crump Stadium but we knew it as the place where Memphis high schools played their football games, not the Tigers of Memphis State. (For the record, the Tigers, more aptly named the Kittens for the way they have played lately, play in the Liberty Bowl.)

What I don’t think anyone of us could imagine was the fact that taking the train was more than just a short ride from the campus to the stadium; it was a trip from the country to the city. When the campus of Memphis State was first built, it was outside the city limits of Memphis. Now, of course, the city of Memphis has grown around the campus and, if nothing else, limits the expansion of the campus. The train still runs by the campus but instead of passenger traffic it is mostly commercial traffic. Woe be the student who is on the south side of the tracks when one of those long, long trains pass by and traffic stops for twenty minutes and they have to be in class in ten minutes.

I bring this up because I have to ask if you, the reader, can tell me what the area around your church looked like when your church built its present building. Was it built with the future in mind or was it built to accommodate the present? I think of one of the churches that I was a member of; when it was built, it was in the middle of farm land and was easily accessible. Over the years, the town and the college that was part of the town grew around the church. In one sense, this was good because it gave the church a population from which it could draw (though, to be honest, it never got many college students to attend). But, as the town grew around the church, parking for the church disappeared. And many church planners will tell you, if you do not have adequate parking, you will have trouble growing the church.

What do you do in situations where the area around the church is no longer the area it was when the church began? In the case of my old church, they began looking for another site, realizing that growth was not possible without such a move.

But sometimes the move is made for other reasons. One of the mega-churches in Memphis, long an established presence in the downtown area, saw an interstate go through the center of town. It also saw the decay of downtown Memphis plus the flight of its membership from the city to the suburbs. Ultimately, in light of where its congregation lived and the neighborhood around the church, the church decided to move out to the suburbs and leave its historical place behind. The good news is that the church was bought by another congregation seeking a bigger building.

A few years ago, I wrote of another church that saw the neighborhood change and recognized that with its congregation living elsewhere the mission of the church needed to change (“What Do We Need?”). And if I am not mistaken, there is a church in my area that recognized that if it wanted to maintain its presence in the community, it must recognize that the community around it had and was changing as well.

By now, you know about the “Call to Action” that is to be the guidelines for the future of the United Methodist Church. You also know that I am a little leery of this call, if for no other reason than I am always leery of directives created at the top which call for the ones on the bottom to implement. I am leery because I am aware that true change is initiated at the bottom and embraced by the top. I am worried because the measure of success for the call will be measured in terms of numbers that tell little about the church. The true success of a church can only be measured in terms of souls saved and that is a metric that cannot be truly measured.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago (“Who Shall Feed My Sheep?”) people do not come to a church because of its numbers; they come because they hope to find God and answers to their questions about life. We have to ask ourselves a very critical question, “what exactly did Jesus want to do with His mission?”

Was it merely to get everyone to follow Him? Or was it to make a fundamental change in the world and the way people treat each other? We can easily count the number of people we baptize, who complete confirmation, and become members? But have we changed the world that way?

Are we not changing the world when we do the things that Jesus did – feed the hungry, heal the sick, bring a new hope to the oppressed and forgotten?

But let us be realistic. Feeding the hungry is more than coffee and doughnuts and calling it breakfast or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and say that it is dinner. It is having a meal with real plates and being able to use real utensils instead of paper plates with plastic forks and knifes. It is preparing food fit for a king because the King may be among those who sit at the table.

Too many people today feel that one’s economic status determines how you eat and what you will eat.

Let us also realize feeding the hungry is not the solution to the problem. People are hungry for a reason, i.e., the lack of food. There needs to be an organized distribution of food within each community and ultimately the lack of food for the people needs to be addressed.

The same thing can be said about medical care. I can tell you from personal experience that many who come to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen lack in basic medical care. Some suffer from high blood pressure and/or diabetes; for one or two, the conditions can be life-threatening if not monitored carefully. At one point this summer five of the women who came to the kitchen were pregnant and only receiving minimal care. If I could do it, I would see that there was some sort of free medical clinic in operation on Saturdays so that those who come to the table can be checked out medically as well. This, like feeding ministries and food banks, is a partial solution; there must be a concentrated effort to see that all the people of a community have reasonable healthcare.

And, when you stop to think about it, the response of the early Methodists was to do just that. Provide food, health care, and education to a portion of the population that most of society would just as soon forget.

If we as a people, a church, and a denomination are to respond to the bishop’s call to action, it should be to respond as those who began the Methodist Revival did. It wasn’t about numbers back then; it was about the people. And that is the way that it should be today.

Paul reminds us that the King is coming. He just doesn’t tell us how He is coming. We tend to think that when Jesus does come, He will come in splendor and glory. But what if He were to come in the rags of a homeless person? Would we then welcome Him? Or would we treat Him as some sort of uninvited guest?

The Gospel passage for today speaks of five foolish and five prepared people. Those who are prepared are prepared for any guest, invited or uninvited; if we are foolish, then the important guest will be missed and we will not be ready.

Joshua stands before the people and the people tell him that they will follow God. But Joshua reminds them that they have forsaken God too many times in the past. How many times have our worship services and our church conferences been like the conversation in the Old Testament reading today?

How many more times will we continue to echo the voices of the Israelites, willing to follow God but unwilling to take the steps? There will come a time when we will not have the opportunity that lies before us.

The table has been set and the doors are opened. Are you prepared for all the guests who will come or just the invited ones? What will you say to the uninvited guest who is hungry and homeless?

And Joshua said to the people, “my family and I will serve God.”

“The Changing of Seasons”

I am at Dover United Methodist Church this morning (Location of church).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.


Right now, the schedule has me at Dover again on November 21st, December 26th, and January 2nd.


It seemed to me that the Old Testament reading for today was out of place in the calendar. It seemed more logical, with the promise of new growth and rebirth, to read this passage in the spring. This passage just seems out of place right now, with the days getting shorter, the weather getting colder instead of warmer, and the colors of the trees, once ablaze with color but now beginning to fade. But perhaps that is more the reason to be reading the passage from Joel for today for it offers a promise of hope and a new birth at a time when such thoughts may very well be disappearing.

And at a time when darkness seems to be such a part of our lives as well as the season, perhaps we need such words of hope and promise. For just as the promise of a new spring brings the promise of rebirth and a renewal of life, so too do Joel’s words offer a promise of rebirth and renewal.

Now, when I first started working on this sermon and I saw the theme about the changing of the seasons, a line from a 1970s song, “No Time”, sung by the group The Guess Who, “seasons change and so did I, you need not wonder why.” I also recalled a 1966 song by Simon and Garfunkel, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, with its line, “seasons change with the scenery”. But this second line didn’t seem to fit the thoughts that were developing with the first.

I suppose that the reason for even thinking about the changing of seasons and the changes it brings into our lives is that we are the only species on this planet that wonders why the seasons change. Other species know that the seasons change and that they must hibernate or migrate with the change. But we are the only ones that look around at the world and marvel at the changes and then wonder why there are such changes.

And we understand that against the framework of time and the universe, such changes cannot be stopped. Still, for all our wondering and pondering about the mysteries of change, we still have some fear of what the change might bring. I am almost certain that when mankind first came up with an explanation for the changes in the seasons there was a cynic amongst them who proclaimed that yesterday was a better day than tomorrow will ever be.

And while I am sure that no one ever said such a thing, it should come as no surprise that, when the ideas about why there were seasons were developed from the ideas about the earth and universe, there was much opposition. If you are like me, you have this ancient image of Galileo being tried by the Catholic Church for heresy for believing and then suggesting that the Sun was the center of the Solar System and that the earth moved around the Sun. It is an image which dominates our thought about science and faith to this day.

And while Galileo was tried by the Catholic Church some four hundred years ago, the opposition to his ideas and the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler did not originate with the church. Rather, the opposition came from individuals within the academic establishment of that time. They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power.

The darkness that I see creeping slowly over the face of the earth today is not because it is becoming winter and the days grow short. Rather, it is a darkness of the minds because there are those in both the secular and sectarian worlds who see any sort of change as a threat rather than a promise.

Now, let me make one point. There are times when changes should be opposed; there are times when change is necessary. But offer reasons why you make the proposal. Not argue that the status quo is the best that it will ever be without providing an explanation; similarly, don’t argue that change is necessary simply because change is necessary. Offer a plan of change and a way to change and show what you think the outcome will be. Change requires more than words; change requires action. And change requires that you see that the present may not be the best idea.

The tax collector in the Gospel reading for today understood this; the Pharisee didn’t. The Pharisee held up his life in the present for everyone to see and marvel at. He pointed out that he did what was required of him and that he need not do anything else. On the other hand, the tax collector knew that he had fallen short in life and he sought God’s mercy. The tax collector did not seek the mercy or the approval of the people like the Pharisee did; he sought out God.

Forty-one years ago, in the spring of 1969, I had a conversation with my pastor, Reverend Marvin Fortel. It was just before spring break and I was getting ready to go home to Memphis. To be honest, life wasn’t going well then. And while I knew that I would have the opportunity to take communion when I went to the Easter Service at the church in Memphis where we attended, it didn’t seem right not to be at what was my home church, First United Methodist Church in Kirksville.

And as I have said and written before, I went and asked Reverend Fortel if I could take communion before I left. To my knowledge, he had never had such a request as this. Most of the college students who attended First UMC came from towns in the area around Kirksville and were members of churches in their home towns. But he agreed to the idea and we meet in the chapel with the bread and the juice and two hymnals. (I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in “That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in “Our Father’s House”.)

It wasn’t a communion like we normally have where the words are read and the elements are blessed. It was more of a conversation about the words and what they really meant. Now, this was just after the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches and we were using the old hymnal rather than the one that we currently use. So the ritual of communion was not the one found on page 12 in the present hymnal. Rather, it was the ritual that begins on page 26 in our present hymnal.

And what I remember most about that time in the chapel forty-one years ago was reading what is called the “Prayer of Humble Access”,

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into His likeness, and may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. AMEN

Now, those words, especially the ones that said “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table,” bothered me. I thought I was saved. I had done all “the right things”; I said the right words when I was asked, I had been baptized and I had been confirmed. I was working for justice and good. I was like the Pharisee, proud of what I had done and expecting great things as a result. Didn’t all of this mean that I had earned the right to sit at God’s Table any time I wanted to?

But Reverend Fortel calmly pointed out that it was God’s grace and mercy that allowed me to sit at the table with Him; nothing I did could compare. I was like the tax collector, who needed to acknowledge that I had failed and that I needed a new life.

And then it became a little clearer. My acceptance of Christ as my Savior opened the door for me so that I could receive God’s grace. And once I passed through that opening, things changed. My life could never be the same again. As Methodists, we understand that our lives can never quite reach the level of perfection that it should be at; but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying.

I work for justice, freedom, and good not because it will get me into heaven but because it is what is expected of me because I am a citizen of the New Kingdom. I left the chapel that day with a newer understanding of who I was and what path I had chosen to walk. Reverend Fortel also gave me some books to read, books I have kept with me over these past forty years. They show the signs of age and one has almost completely fallen apart from my constant use of it in my writings.

I have told this story many times before but it bears repeating. Reverend Fortel died this past week at the age of 93 and I wanted to celebrate his life and that conversation that changed my life. One small conversation forty-one years ago may not seem like such a big deal but it changed things. It gave hope at a time when hope didn’t seem possible; it provided opportunities when none seemed open. I can’t say that either of us anticipated what I would do in the coming years then nor do we know how this will all play out in the years to come. That is the nature of change and what happens in our lives.

Paul writes to Timothy at the end of his missionary life. But instead of thinking about his life, Paul is encouraging Timothy to take up the ministry and continue it. But it is not Paul’s work that Timothy is to continue; it is God’s work that will continue. Even in change is continuity.

And now Joel’s words become not just words but the actual promise of hope, renewal, and rebirth. They speak of what is to come through God and the Holy Spirit. They speak of a radical new world where the old can dream again and the youth will have visions.

Those who argue against change and speak of doom with the coming of change have no dreams; they have no visions. They live in the present and long for the past. They do not want to work for tomorrow. They are like the ones who said they supported Paul in his ministry but weren’t there when Paul was in court.

But God was there with Paul and gave him the support that he needed at a most difficult time. We may fear change because we are uncertain about what is to come but the certainty of the presence of God in our lives can remove that fear.

It begins when our lives change. It begins when we open our hearts and our minds to the presence of Jesus Christ. It is more than just saying that you accept Christ, it is the actual acceptance of Christ. It may not come immediately but it will happen if you let it. And then you let the Holy Spirit empower you and things begin to change.

The seasons change and as the days grow shorter and darker, it is perhaps hard to see what lies ahead. But in Christ, we have the promise of hope and rebirth, of renewal and new beginnings. The preacher once wrote, “To everything there is a season, a time and purpose under heaven.” This is the season in which the change comes in our lives and what we will do in the new kingdom.

A New Vision

This is the message that I gave on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1 – 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.


It is always interesting when I post an sermon that I wrote before I began this blog back in 2005.  In this particular case, I made reference to Joseph Priestley, chemist and Dissenter.  But I apparently forgot that I had written this when I posted my piece, “A Dialogue of Science and Faith.”  It would have been nice to have remember that because I could have used the reference that I refer to in this message.  Nonetheless, what I present here offers some evidence that science and faith can work and live together.  And the vision that one has for the future is not limited by one’s background or life.


I had the opportunity the other day to read a story about Joseph Priestley in Today’s Chemist at Work. Now, most of you probably do not know who Joseph Priestley is or why I would be reading a story about him. But the title of the magazine tells you that Priestley was somehow connected to chemistry, which he was.

Priestley is considered one of the two discoverers of oxygen. Now, that I knew since the history of chemistry is supposed to be one of my specialties. But what I did not know and what I found most interesting is that, in addition to being a chemist, Joseph Priestley was also a minister. And as much as he was known for his scientific work, he was also known for his orthodox religious and political views.

Priestley grew up as a Dissenter. In 18th century England, Dissenters were those who belonged to a church other than the established Church of England. His home was a center for Dissenters where they would gather to discuss politics and religion. It is clear that the religious and political discussions that took place in his home as he grew influenced his life and decisions that he made. Unfortunately, his views were so opposite the established views of his day and society (not only were his religious views in opposition to the Church of England, he supported both the American and French Revolutions) that he was forced by violence to move to America. He lived the last ten years of his life in America outside Northumberland, PA, and never returned to England.

If nothing else, it is nice to know that one can be a chemist and a minister, though many might wonder about the dissenting part and the consequences of expressing one’s thought openly. Still, there is one aspect of science illustrated by both Priestley’s life and the Old Testament reading for today.

Joseph Priestley first isolated oxygen experimentally on August 1, 1774. Later that year, he met with Antoine Lavoisier and discussed his work. Based on this discussion and his own work, Lavoisier named the new element "oxygen." Lavoisier and Priestley are both given credit for the discovery but the first to isolate and characterize oxygen as an element was Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele completed his work in 1773 but did not publish his results until 1777. (Adapted from "Chemistry Chronicles", Today’s Chemist at Work, October 2004)  In the world of science then, as now, if you don’t write it down when you do it, it never happened.

Habakkuk is told by God to write down his vision first. Write it down so that people will know that it is true. Now, God’s command to write down the vision first is unusual. Normally, God’s prophets spoke of the prophecy before writing it down. But this time, God wanted to make sure that the prophecy was known.

But what is the vision that Habakkuk sees? The prophet says that he will stand in the watchtower and look for what is to come. But he is expecting to see the Babylonians coming. And with their arrival, he expects to see the destruction of Israel. And Habakkuk wonders why God is using the Babylonians to accomplish His work. Much of this book will deal with the questions that Habakkuk asks God.

In this Habakkuk is different from the other prophets. The other prophets will tell people to listen for the word of God. But Habakkuk asks questions of God. He asks how long will God let the violence of the world persist. He will ask God why He, God, would even think of using a nation such as Babylon as an instrument of His peace. Habakkuk wanted to know, just as we do what God was doing and why. Why is there so much evil among the righteous and why is there so much power among the wicked?

God does not strike Habakkuk for challenging Him; rather He answers him. He tells Habakkuk that He, the Lord, will establish His Kingdom. He will hold all people and nations accountable. The present may be filled with wickedness and chaos, but the future will belong to the righteous – the truly righteous. God will bring in His Kingdom; He will give rest and salvation to His children; and He will judge His people’s adversaries.

We see the world today much like Habakkuk did back then. We see the entire world and wonder why there are so many problems. And for us as Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, the vision that we see is very frightening. By now you know that our future is not a good one and unless things change, there will be no tomorrow.

But it is how we see the world that determines the vision that we see. And so how we see the future of this church will be determined by how we see the world around us. The thing is that new visions come by renewal more than they come by reaction. The deepest changes come from a revolution of the spirit rather than by a revolution by people. New visions more often come from the margins and the bottom rather than the center and the top.

Hope has always been a more powerful force for change than despair. The renewal of our best values and moral sensibilities has the best chance of forging a new covenant. People and societies are lifted to new and higher ground by engaging the best that is within them and their traditions.

But new visions cannot come from old structures, new values cannot be created from old assumptions, new leadership does not often emerge from the ranks of the old elite, those most imprisoned by old systems and options. New visions require new places, new places in all of us.

Distinguishable signs, signs of expressed commitment that demonstrates the values of the old and an encompassing of the new, mark such visions. Such signs are rooted in the human image of God and are a powerful counterpoint to the worst of our social and cultural instincts and behavior. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

As we approach Election Day, we are being bombarded by references to the war on terror. Yet, in all the rhetoric, I have yet to hear any politician at any level offer a new vision, a new alternative to winning this war. All with something to say repeat the same words but do little to remove the primary causes of terror. Jesus asked us what we were going to do about the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. And as long as we live in a world where the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed are given second class status, there will always be the causes for terror. But what politician in which party is saying that we should correct that which causes brother to turn against brother, nation against nation, and mankind against itself?

It is that fight between what God would have us do and what society would have us do that is the central point to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The church in Thessalonika is fighting a battle against persecution and problems within the church.

Just as Habakkuk worried about the violence in the world around him, so too did the people in Thessalonika worry that the persecution of Christians was a sign of the Second Coming of Christ. And many people were twisting Paul’s words to fit their own view of what the Second Coming was all about. But the ability of the people of the church to hold on to the true faith exceeds the doubts and fears of those around them and the church is growing.

The vision of the future that the Thessalonians held was a vision of Christ, not the vision of others. Even though Habakkuk could not understand what he saw, he did come to know what God intended to be the outcome of the Babylonian army destroying Israel. It was the vision that God held, not what others saw.

The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one. We learned in Sunday School that Zacchaeus was short and, in order to see Christ walking by, he had to climb a tree. But perhaps we also need to realize that in order to have a vision of Christ, Zacchaeus found it necessary to change his viewpoint.

To have a new vision requires a new viewpoint. It also requires that we change the way we, individually and collectively, do things. Finally, we must also seek Christ. We are not going to find Christ unless we go out of our way, as Zacchaeus did. We are not going to find Christ unless we change the way we see the world.

Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, wrote the following:

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, "Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans." (From Jesus in Blue Jeans by Laurie Beth Jones)

The success of the Methodist Revival only came about when John Wesley realized that it was not his revival but God’s. The success only came about when Wesley changed the view of his life and placed his trust in God and God alone. John Wesley had a vision of what the world could be but it only came to pass when he saw it through God first.

Last week, the prophet Joel spoke to us and told us that in the coming days the old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions. The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams if there is hope and promise in the future? We, as Habakkuk did, stand on the watchtower and see the future before us. Is it one of hope and promise or is it one of gloom?

But standing in the watchtower also gives us the opportunity to be like Zacchaeus and see Jesus as He walks by, calling to us and telling us that He wants to be a part of our life. In answering Jesus’ call to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus’ life changed. That will be the case for each one of us.

It was a time of gloom and persecution. People were afraid of and for the future. But Paul spoke of how others saw the church in Thessalonika. Others saw a church where the hope and promise was fulfilled through faith.

What vision will we see? Will it be a gloomy one, drawn by the world around us? Or will it be a new vision, empowered and clarified by the presence of Christ as our Savior? There is a call today to see a new vision. What vision do you see?

A New Vision (Part 2)

I am at Dover UMC this morning.  (Location of church)  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, All Saints Day, are Isaiah 25: 6 – 9; Revelation 21: 1 – 6; and John 11: 32 – 44.


I normally don’t do a series of messages but as the title of this one would suggest I am doing so this week. There were things about the Scriptures last week and the message that I saw in those verses that matched in part what I was thinking about the message for today.

The focus last week was a metaphorical new vision of God by Job and the physical restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight. These visions came on the Sunday when we pause to remember Martin Luther and his vision of a new church.

The opening lines of the second reading for today tell us John the Seer’s vision of the New Jerusalem and a new beginning for mankind. I do not, as some today do, see the Revelation of John as the end of mankind. Rather, I have come to see the Revelation as a new beginning, of a promise of a new hope found in Christ.

It is interesting that we would read this particular passage of Scripture on a day when we pause to remember those who have gone before us. It would not seem logical to think of the past when the focal point of any discussion should be about the future. But, in reality, when we remember the Saints of the church, be it a particular church or the church in general, we are remembering the vision they had for the church and where they thought the church would be long after they had left. And for us today, the vision of the church many years ago must also include the vision that John Wesley had when he first spoke out against a church that had no vision, which could not see the poor and the needy, the hungry and the homeless, the sick and imprisoned.

There isn’t a church in this country or on this planet that wasn’t formed with some vision of its purpose. We see it in the Methodist churches from Cold Spring and South Highlands eastward to Mahopac. Each of those churches represents a stop for the circuit riders some two hundred years ago. I would also expect that the churches along route 22 from Pawling northward to Pine Plains can be measured in terms of the circuit riders who visited this area early in our country’s history.

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the vision or purpose behind the creation of a particular church. I cannot help but think of the local Pentecostal churches in the hollows of eastern Kentucky that are within ear-shout and eye-sight of other similarly named churches. It always struck me that these were churches started by members of one church who had a disagreement and decided it was best to form their own church, even if you could walk just down the road from one church to the other.

But, no matter the reason, every church knows the purpose for which it was founded and a vision of where it would like to go. Or at least it should. A church whose only vision is to be a memorial to the Saints long past is a church without a vision.

For any person or organization to have a vision of the future, to think beyond the moment, is and can be a very dangerous thing. There are risks involved when a church begins to think of what might happen and what it will take to make the vision a reality. It is quite easy to see the present as safe and fear what tomorrow might bring or to sit and think that yesterday was so much better.

But pause for a moment and think about what it must have been for the early church, meeting secretly in believer’s homes, because public knowledge that they were believers and followers of Jesus Christ meant their arrest, torture, and execution. The only assurance that these early believers, these early Saints, had was that there was a promise in life after death, no matter what might happen to them in the present.

Still, the prospect of a new vision can be a very threatening thing. You would think that a new vision should be a liberating thing but people who have been oppressed for long periods of time are not always open to new visions.

You would have thought that the Israelites, after many years of slavery and oppression in Egypt, would have rejoiced in the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But time and time again, they rebelled against that vision and time after time, they demanded a return to Egypt and slavery. Even after all the wanderings, when they stood on the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to cross over, the spies that were sent in to scout the land returned with tails of danger and accounts of giants. The vision was theirs to claim but the people still would rather accept a reality of slavery than any vision of freedom.

It may not seem logical but many times those who have been oppressed or forgotten may approach the prospect of a new vision with a certain degree of numbness and apathy. It is far easier and safer to continue in a world where things may be bleak and without hope because it is a familiar situation than entertain the possibility of something new and transforming because it is unknown and potentially dangerous.

It has been an axiom of society that we cannot buck the status quo. And there are many, even in the church, who would offer no vision of the future because they are heavily invested in the present. Their opposition and reluctance to see the future, to have any vision for the future, can sap energy and prevent change, because they stifle the imagination.

But the hope and promise of a better tomorrow can overcome those who would work against the new vision. They will offer many thoughts that are only designed to stifle and hold back. The future can be very frightening because it is unknown when held up against the reassurance of what the present offers.

The power of vision is its ability to imagine an alternative to the present reality. Vision offers a way for an alternative consciousness to develop, to produce a scenario different from the present. It offers one the opportunity to see an alternative to the status quo, to shed light on the deficiencies of the present.

The people were in grief because Lazarus had died; all they wanted Jesus to do was console Mary and Martha in the loss of their brother. But Jesus offered a new vision, of a life that transcends death. To bring Lazarus out of the tomb was to offer a new vision, a continuation of what He had said early on His ministry, “Go and tell the people what you have seen and heard”. (Luke 7: 22)

Even those who offer a new vision know that it can be frightening. It would be naïve to even think about getting involved in the development of a new vision if one did not realize its costs. To announce a new vision for the future is to say that there is something wrong with the present. And this will lead many to proclaim such visionaries as radicals or revolutionaries and even subversive. And we all know what the secular and sectarian authorities did to Jesus and those who proclaimed the vision of a new church some two thousand years ago. (Adapted from Threshold of the Future by Michael Riddell)

But if the present condition, the numbness of a living death, is nothing more than despair and absence of hope, a vision can offer hope. When we read the prophets, especially Isaiah, we forget their timeless messages found a beginning in social and political crises. In the book of Isaiah, Assyria had swept the northern kingdom of Israel away. Now it rode from the north and endangered Jerusalem. Little did the city realize that the seeds of Assyria’s destruction lay in her expansion. The impending crisis had a “silver lining.”

The verses from Isaiah that we read today share the hope of the changing situation. Through the prophet, God announced a time of celebration in Jerusalem and an end to the desperation that covered the city “like a veil.” God was liberating Mount Zion (upon which the city was built) from danger and was restoring the reputation of the city and the people.

Hope in the light of vindication and liberation. The message of Isaiah still rings true today as it did so many centuries ago. Where do you see hope in the light of danger? How has God restored you when you were “down and out?” How did you thank God for your turnaround? (From http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/a/28-a/FR-28-a.html)

What is your vision of the church today? What shall be your vision tomorrow? When I was selecting the music for this Sunday, it was only natural that I pick something like “For All the Saints”. And I will admit that I picked “Be Thou My Vision” for the most obvious of reasons even though it was not on the suggested list of hymns in my worship planner. But there was a song on the suggested list that I might never have thought about, our closing hymn this morning, “We Shall Overcome.”

Perhaps no song is more associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s but I doubt that many people know of its ties to this area or its history within the Methodist Church. The popularity of the song as a protest song comes, in part, from the effort of Pete Seeger in the late 40s and early 50s.

But the song itself has ties to the African Methodist Episcopal church of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even then, its roots run back to at least 1867. As I explored the history of this song, I noticed something. A gentleman named Thomas Wentworth Higgins, writing in the June, 1867, issue of Atlantic Monthly said that he wondered how such spirituals were developed and written. He concluded that there was something in the minds of some people that lead to the song’s creation but he also concluded that such songs grew by gradual accretion, bits and pieces, in an almost unconscious way. There was a vision involved in the creation and development of this song, just as there is for almost any other song.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy used the words of George Bernard Shaw to speak of a vision for this country, “some see things as they are and say why; others see things as they could be and ask why not.” Sadly, that implementation of that vision was taken away from us that horrible, horrible spring some forty-one years ago. But the vision was not taken away. And today, on this All Saints Sunday, we are reminded of the vision that our forefathers and those who walked the path before us had. We are called to see the vision of Christ renewing our lives and transforming them; we are called to see the vision of tomorrow in the hope and promise of Christ’s resurrection. The words that we now see say that we shall overcome; we shall make the vision the reality.

How Do We Measure Independence?

This is the message for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 5 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28;  and Mark 12: 38 – 44.


Parts of this sermon were adapted from “Yahweh is my God” from “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese in Sojourners, November – December, 2003 and “Living by the Word” by Mary W. Anderson in Christian Century, November 1, 2003.


This is an interesting Sunday, if other Sundays are not. It comes after the day on which an individual can make the single most dynamic expression of independence known to civilization. And it comes just before the 85th anniversary of one of those events that insured that our independence could be expressed by our vote. Last Tuesday was the first Tuesday of November and it is our traditional Election Day. Yet, the majority of citizens of this country, for whatever reason, choose not to participate. And this coming Tuesday will be the 85th anniversary of the “war to end all wars.” I do not know if bells will ring at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to honor what once was called Armistice Day and is now known as Veterans’ Day. And if they do ring, I am sure that most people will think that it is only a signal to begin shopping for the many specials that will be offered on Tuesday.

It is highly ironic that, in a country that values its independence and speaks so highly of it in the abstract, the people cannot even remember what the holidays are about or what is required of them to insure independence. Ask yourself and then ask others what is the meaning of Memorial Day. Other than a reason to begin summer, why do we celebrate this day? Can the people you know state what it is that Thomas Jefferson wrote and was first adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th? Do people understand why Benjamin Franklin said, “surely we will hang together or we will hang separately?”

And so you will not be embarrassed when you ask these questions to your friends, Memorial Day was begun as a remembrance of the Union dead of the War Between the States. It was not until after World War I that the meaning of the day was expanded to honor all those who have died in American Wars. And it was not until 1971 that Congress made the day a national holiday.

Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) picked the day of May 30th as Memorial Day since it was believed that flowers would be in bloom all over the country. General Logan’s orders for that day stated, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” (From http://www.appc1.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm)

The opening line of the Declaration of Independence, which was first read on July 4, 1776, was “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and Nature’s God entitled them a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The statement about self-evident truths is the beginning of the second paragraph.

Benjamin Franklin knew that the struggle for independence was not an individual struggle but a group struggle and were this noble effort of the colonies to fail, all signatories to this Declaration would be hung, either with their comrades or alone. It is interesting to note that when the American people saw the Declaration of Independence for the first time, the only signature on the document was that of John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress. Most of the other signers did not affix their signatures to the document that resides in the National Archives until a month or so later. But as one of the wealthiest men in our young country, Hancock was acknowledging that he was willing to lose everything, his money and his life, should the fight for independence fail.

We cherish our independence. Jesus’ choice of the widow in the Gospel reading today was not by accident. In those days, there were no rich widows. Women were totally dependent on male relatives for their livelihood. To be a widow meant that you had not only lost someone you loved but that you had also lost the one on whom you were totally dependent.

We seek financial independence because we do not want to be dependent on someone else. Money gives us independence and freedom. In a sense, it gives us the right to determine what our lives will be. But does financial independence mean that we have simply surrendered our independence for a dependence of another form? The issue can never be about the amount of money in our checkbook or the size of our portfolio bur rather what the money does for us? Is it our heart, our security, our source of power. Or is it our tool for stewardship?

When we read of Ruth and Naomi gathering food in the barley field, do we remember that it was the law of the community that commanded farmers to leave some behind for the poor and the strangers. In Leviticus 23:22 we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave then for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”

What gives us independence? Do we find independence in what we have or the things we seek? Jesus contrasted the example of the widow who gave the two coins with the actions of the church leaders whose superficial piety did nothing to disguise their quest for power and acclaim at the expense of the poor. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes … and to have … places of honor at the banquets.” (Mark 12: 38 – 40)

Independence really means that your choices are your own. The widow in the Gospel was free to give her money. Those with more would have told her to keep it. Now who has the independence?

The widow trusted in God rather than in her money or rather her lack of it. The same can be said for Ruth. Faced with poverty and an uncertain future, she chose to trust in God. Some may say that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz was preordained but Ruth still had to make the choices and that in itself required trust in God.

The theme of Hebrews throughout these past few weeks has been that it is no longer necessary to offer sacrifices or perform rituals in order to seek redemption. Such things are no longer necessary because of Christ’s single sacrifice. And today we are reminded of that sacrifice and the trust that Jesus placed in God.

Remember that on that night the Last Supper with the disciples and Jesus was alone in the Garden, he was alone in part because the disciples could not keep watch. With all the pressures bearing down on Him, Jesus trusted in God to see that everything would turn out okay. Even facing the fact that one of his best friends, one he had chosen to be by his side for some three years was in the process of betraying Him, Jesus trusted in God.

As we celebrate communion today we will say “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” It is a measure of our independence that we can say that for it shows that we trust in God first.

The idea of independence can never be measured in terms of money or power. For whatever we have, we always find someone who has more. And if someone has more than we do, then we are limited by what they have, not who we are. Independence is measured in trust.

When John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he implicitly stated his trust in the American people, even though the British army was the best in the world. Independence was gained because there was a trust in the cause and not necessarily in force or might.

When the widow gave her two coins in the offering that day so many years ago, she was stating that she placed her trust in God. When Ruth sought Boaz, it was with trust in God that things would work out. As we read, their marriage leads to the birth of Obed, the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Without trust, the House of David could not have been established.

In a world of power and money, people don’t give up power and money since that is what they are defined by. But it is a definition that limits them for they are afraid to lose what they have. That is what makes Christ’s sacrifice so much more important to us. He gave up everything so that we might have freedom over sin and death. And what can be a greater measure of independence than that?