“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

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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.”

What’s Next


This is a sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 24 October 1999.  The Scriptures are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 33 -46.

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There are moments in each person’s life that always stick in your memories. July of 1973 and June of 1976 are such times for me because that is when my two daughters were born. The summer of 1999, when I married Ann and came here to Walker Valley, is another such time.

But the spring of 1968 will also be one of those times, although not necessarily for the good things that happened. The spring of 1968 was the time of my graduation from high school in Memphis. Such was a good time because it marked the end of my high school education and meant that I could return to Kirksville and finish my freshman year of college at Truman State University, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, something I had started some two summers before.

But it was also the spring when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Now, a little over thirty years later, I admit I paid little attention to the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis. We didn’t live in Memphis proper and so the strike was of little to concern to my family or I; besides my mind was on senior things and getting back to Kirksville. But I realize know the profound indifference that we showed a group of men who did work that no one else would do and for which the hours were long, the pay low, and benefits non-existent.

And though it was 1968, for all one could tell back then, it might as well have been 1868 for all the concern the white government showed its black employees.

Dr. King came to Memphis to help publicize the strike and point out the inequities that existed not just between workers of different races in that city, something hardly unique to Memphis back then and perhaps even now, but between rich and poor throughout the country.

And on the night he was killed, Dr. King borrowed from the Old Testament reading for today to say that he too had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the Promised Land. He, like Moses, said that he might not get there and I have never known where he was being prophetic or not with that comment coming less than 24 hours before he would be shot.

But Dr. King’s presence that spring did a lot to change Memphis. I cannot say if it was the good of all or not. But Memphis is no long the sleepy little Delta river town it was before he came.

Today, like Moses, we stand at the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. But, unlike Moses, we have a chance not just to see the Promised Land but to enter it as well.

Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land because of what had happened to the Israelite people some forty years before. Still, for all he had done, God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land before he died.

But this was not the first time that the Israelites had prepared to enter the Promised Land. In the Book of Numbers, chapter2 12 through 14, we can read about their arrival at that edge of the Promised Land and how they sent spies into the Land to see what was there. In Numbers 13: 26 – 29, we read that the first part of the spies’ report was truthful (the land was rich and flowing with milk and honey) but the goodness of the land was offset in their fearful eyes by the power peoples who lived there. In verse 30, only Caleb and Joshua gave a report prompted by faith in God.

In verses 32 and 33, the other spies quickly distort what they have found, showing a lack in faith in the power of God. God punishes the Israelites, in 14: 34 by having them continue their wanderings in the desert for forty years; one year of every one of the 40 days of the travels of the spies became the numerical pattern for their suffering. For 40 years they would recount their misjudgment, and for 40 years the people 20 years old or more would be dying, so that only the young generation might enter the land. Significantly, Israel’s refusal to carry out the Lord’s commission to conquer his land is the climactic act of rebellion for which God condemns Israel to die in the desert.

Because they refused to trust in the Lord, the same Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, the same Lord who fed them every day of their journey and gave them water to drink when it seemed that there was none; they were punished.

Now, today we stand on the mountaintop looking into the Promised Land but our vision is not so clear. The mists of time cover the valley and make the future fuzzy and unclear. What can we do to make it clearer?

In the Gospel reading for today, we read

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

When we love God with the total commitment of heart and soul and mind, as Jesus said, we put God first in our lives. The writer and theologian, C. S. Lewis, wrote

All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. No doubt, in a given situation, it demands the surrender of some, or all, our merely human pursuits: it is better to be saved with one eye, than having two, to be cast into Gehenna. But it does this, in a sense, per accidens – because, in those special circumstances, it has ceased to be possible to practice this or that activity to the glory of God. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of him are in different parts of space, excluding other objects from them. Yet he is everywhere – totally present at every point of space – according to good theologians. (From From the The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis)

If we love God with all our soul, our heart, and our mind, then all that we have gets put to use in a better way than were we to try to do it ourselves. Jesus also said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. For whatever the future may be, we will not be able to survive in it if we treat others with hatred and mistrust.

I know that one reason that I feel the way that I do and why I see the church as an agency for change in the coming years is because I saw church leaders involved in the changes of society in the 60’s. It is interesting to note how the involvement of the church in today’s society is met with cynicism and distrust. Yet, what church leaders and members did in the 60’s wasn’t met with overwhelming acceptance either. Many of the pastors who I knew in Kirksville who fought for social justice in that sleepy Missouri farm town paid the price for their actions, both professionally and socially.

Those who opposed the actions of the church then, and perhaps now, see the church as something done on Sundays only with the rest of the week devoted to other things. When you leave God at the door of the church on Sunday, you are not trusting God to help guide you through the week, and a faith such as that will die. A church whose actions stop on Sunday with Sunday School and worship service will not live long.

But the opposite will not work either. The world that Jesus came into was a world of laws and regulations, so strict and encumbering that one could not breathe. It was impossible to relate to God personally. I do not want a future where my relationship with Jesus is one dictated by rules and regulations. Jesus pointed out that out when he said that the two commandments summed up the law and the prophets. Our relationship with God, through Jesus, is an individual one, not dictated by what others tell us.

By our actions, and they can be the simple actions of daily life, we can show others what Christ means to us. Not everyone is capable of preaching a sermon but then not everyone is asked to preach a sermon. We are asked to work for the church as a group, not as individuals.

There are some that work for the church and want to quit. Remember what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We are not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.

Paul understood and tried to tell others that the work of presenting the Gospel message was not an easy one to do. But he also pointed out that the reasons why the message is presented must come from God, not from our own motives. If your work is true in that sense, then you have nothing to fear.

There are some that will not work for the church, saying that they do not wish to endure the hardship and trouble that will surely come if they do. For them, they need to remember why the Israelites saw the Promised Land for the second time.

So we stand at the mountaintop, looking into the future that is the Promised Land. We can fear the future but this only means that will continue wandering in the wilderness. Or we can choose to open our hearts and hear the Gospel message of the grace of God and salvation through Christ. Doing so doesn’t mean that we give up our talents; it means that we can use our talents to better ends. What’s next?

 


Misplaced Values


I am at 1st United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, this Sunday (location of church).  The Scriptures for this 22nd Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.

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Last Sunday I was at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (“The Basic Rules”) and as was the case the last time I visited there (“What Exactly Is Freedom?”), I had the opportunity to hear the mass from Fordham University (see “There Is A Choice”) on WFUV-FM radio. As I said before, to hear the mass, even though I am not Catholic, puts a wonderful ending to a morning of worship and service. In this case, I did not hear the entire homily but only the latter part in which Father Currie (I believe that was who was officiating) mentioned Chapters 3 – 5 of Isaiah (Isaiah 3 – Biblegateway.com (The Message translation)).

After I got home last Sunday, I went and read those passages. What I found interesting were verses 13 – 15 in Chapter 3 and verses 8-10 in Chapter 5

God enters the courtroom.
He takes his place at the bench to judge his people.
God calls for order in the court, hauls the leaders of his people into the dock: “You’ve played havoc with this country.
Your houses are stuffed with what you’ve stolen from the poor.
What is this anyway? Stomping on my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt?”
That’s what the Master, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, says. (Isaiah 3: 13 – 15)

Doom to you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land for yourselves –evicting the old owners, posting no trespassing signs, taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless.
I overheard God-of-the-Angel-Armies say: “Those mighty houses will end up empty. Those extravagant estates will be deserted.
A ten-acre vineyard will produce a pint of wine, a fifty-pound sack of seed, a quart of grain.” (Isaiah 5: 8 – 10)

Now, I don’t see these verses as prophecy for our time because they were written and spoken to address the problems of Israel at that time. But the passages ring true today when you read of the oppression of the poor and the taking of lands and houses by the rich from the poor. It also goes to the problems that this country is experiencing today, both in terms of what we are doing and what we are not doing. As the title of my sermon suggests, I think the values of this country are highly misplaced.

And whether or not we are rich, it is the actions of all the people which has lead this country to the crisis that it faces and will be facing for many years to come. Like the people in the desert, we have exchanged God for the golden calf of materialism. We are not willing to have a God whom we can’t see; like the people of Israel wandering in the desert, we seek a god we can hold and touch, a god that we have made that makes us feel good. And not only do we want a god that we can touch, hold, and control, we want the benefits of this god for ourselves; we flat out do not want to share in whatever we will gain.

Everything in the Bible, from the beginning in Genesis to the end of Revelations is about the relationship between God and the people and the relationship between people. What we remember and what those who have never heard or read the Bible seem to think is that God seems to be, at times, vindictive and mean. There are those today who push that very idea of a mean, vindictive, sour and dour old man, angry at His creation. But their reasons for doing so are not God’s reasons, even if they say they are.

Still, why shouldn’t He be angry at His creation? Read the words that God spoke to Moses that day some three thousand years ago. God had every right to be mad; He had every right to be angry and I can easily see why He would want to wipe the Israelites off the face of the earth. As soon as Moses left their company, the people literally reverted to their old ways, to the ways of the worship that they probably had observed and maybe even been involved with while they were in Egypt. Miracle after miracle had brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai and yet they reverted to the old ways.

Even in Jesus’ time, the people sought tangible evidence of God’s presence in their lives. They were unwilling to work for God, expecting God to come to them through a fulfillment of rules and regulations. And, in the opinion of those who made the rules and regulations, those who cannot meet the rules and regulations had no right to enter God’s House. We see that today. We see magnificent houses of worship that are virtually off-limits to the poor, the hungry, the down-trodden, and the oppressed. But it is more than churches that are no longer the house of God; it is the people who say that they are God’s children but refuse to acknowledge by their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their actions that God is their father.

Oh, they will say that Jesus is Lord; they will act Godly and Christian-like. But their bearing, their words, their deeds, and their actions do not speak of Christ in their lives. The actions of our leaders last week was not about saving the people of this country or this world; it was about saving their own skins. It was about protecting their savings and their homes and their jobs, not about saving the homes and the jobs of the people. I recall reading once that Christians could be political conservatives and I am still trying to figure that one out. Perhaps you can be politically conservative and a Christian but if you are unwilling to fight for the rights of others to enjoy the benefits that you claim for yourself, then I don’t think you can be conservative and Christian. This isn’t a statement about social programs or welfare or anything of that nature; this is a flat statement that if you say you are a Christian, if you say that you lead a Biblical life, then you must care for the others in this world without regard to their race, their creed, their lifestyle, or their economic or social status. And, quite frankly, in my mind, too many people say they are Christians on Sunday but something entirely different the rest of the week.

Albert Edward Day, in his book The Captivating Presence, wrote

I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “In all afflictions he was afflicted.”

Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against that possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go our own way. We give our charities but we do not give our selves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives.

You cannot be a follower of God through Christ or otherwise if you are not willing to give up your claim to everything you own in your life. This is not to say that Christians must be homeless or without but if your basic view of life is that the more stuff you have the closer to heaven you get, then you had better think again.

This isn’t solely about materialism but rather the accumulation and the seeking of such. Sadly, what people often seek are the trappings and the looks of the rich and the powerful. To paraphrase Spike Lee, it has to be the shoes that make you rich and famous. Let’s not forget, though, that the particular person wearing those shoes was 6’ 6” and remarkably talented and that he worked to keep his talent above the level of all the other players. And for the record, look at Michael Jordan’s high school record; he wasn’t all that good. So what do we do?

Jesus told the disciples to take only what they needed and nothing more. He told the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow me. The rich young ruler couldn’t get past the first part that he had to sell everything. By the same token, there are those today who think that because they are poor, homeless, or somehow disenfranchised, they are entitled to certain perks and benefits.

Jesus threw the beggars out of the wedding feast, not because they were poor but because they were not willing to put on the new clothes that a wedding required. This passage seems to run counter to the idea that all are welcome in God’s house. But entrance into God’s House requires a change of heart and mind; you cannot continue to lead the same life that you were before you came to God through Christ. If you are unwilling to change, no matter who you are, you will not be welcome. The good news is that those who are willing to change their heart, their soul, and their mind will find this place quicker that those who are unwilling to give up what they have. It isn’t about what you have or don’t have; it isn’t about what you think you need or what you think you are owed. It is whether or not you want to find a better life.

Here the words of David in Psalm 15

God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?

“Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”

If wouldn’t hurt us to hear the words of Paul once again.

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

There are those today who say that these are the end times, that God will invoke His wrath and destroy the world. The words of God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai seem to echo in the words of these modern day prophets. These modern day prophets say that those who have faithfully followed God will be taken up and those who have led a life of sin will be left behind. But their definition of a faithful follower often sounds to me like a description of the establishment that Jesus worked against.

But we don’t need God to destroy the world; we are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves. If you say that you are a follower of Christ but do little to improve the condition of this world, if you ignore your neighbors, if you plunder the environment or gather up riches for yourselves and say that you do in the name of God, you will be among those left behind.

Yes, we are a hard-headed and stubborn people. Yes, we have been given signs and there have been times when God has let our enemies be victorious. But each time, He has given His people the chance to redeem themselves and start anew. God sent His Son, not to destroy this world, but to save it.

If we are who we say we are, both as Christians and as United Methodists, then we have the responsibility to take the Gospel message out into the world and work to make this a better place, not just for ourselves but for all. It will require that we begin anew, that we cast off the clothes of our old life and put on new clothes.

When Moses was leading the privileged life, he saw his kinsman being persecuted and abused. His actions to protect a kinsman led to his exile in the wilderness and his encounter with God. And even when his kinsman turned against God and the covenant made at Mount Sinai, he fought for them. We are in the same position today.

There is time for this society, this country, and this world. While there are those who will tell you that these are the end times and that there is no hope; we are reminded that there is hope but we cannot gain this hope through the values that have lead us to this time and place. We have to cast away our old values, like old clothes, and put on the new clothes that come through Christ. Then we will be invited into His House and to the great wedding. If we hold onto our misplaced values, we will cry in pain. If we regain the values that are ours through Christ, we will cry out in joy and celebration. But we must first hear the call of Christ; we must open our hearts and our minds to His Call.

Parts of the Church


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.

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Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. This is both a unique and a historical day. It is unique in that our denomination is perhaps the only denomination that honors the laity of the church for the service that it does and has done. While laity may partake in the administration of a church service, very few denominations allow their laity to speak like the United Methodist Church does. And that is part of the historical nature of this denomination.

While historically the major denominations have been a part of the landscape of American history, only the United Methodist Church has allowed church services to be held and run by laity. This is because of the nature of the circuit rider, the traveling itinerant preacher unique to Methodism. If an Episcopal or a Lutheran church were established in an area, it was because there was an Episcopal or a Lutheran minister to lead and direct the church. But Methodism was established through societies, the meeting of laity, who relied on the traveling circuit rider to provide the pastoral leadership. And because the circuit rider had several churches under his charge, it was up to the laity to hold the church services on those Sundays when the rider was somewhere else.

Even today, we find many United Methodist churches across the country, even in our own church district, using lay speakers so that services can be held.

This relationship between clergy and laity is very unique to Methodism. Most denominations run with a top-down administration model that gives very little power to those outside the clergy. Even though the laity may participate in a particular Sunday service, it is a limited participation. And the administration of many churches holds the power very close to the vest, viewing the laity as truly lost sheep incapable of handling the complex issues of church administration.

For the United Methodist Church, it is slightly different. Though the administration of the overall United Methodist Church is through the bishops and the district superintendents, each local church has much to say regarding its own day-to-day operation. This was by design and has helped churches in those periods when there was no local pastor. And by design, this mode of operation leads to a sense of “creative tension,” a pulling between the overall church body and the local one.

Most of the time, such a tension is useful and productive. But there are times when it can be less useful, less productive, and even destructive. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians last week, we read of how the church in Philippi was in danger of tearing itself apart unless the people of the congregation worked together to meet the common goals of faith instead of working against each other. If we, individually and collectively, are to be a successful church, it will be because we work together and not against each other.

Paul wrote to Thessalonians about their faith and the results of their faith. He writes of their faith and how that faith led to true repentance. It was through their faith that they sought to bring the message of Jesus, the Gospel message of hope, peace, and righteousness to those around them. But it is important to note that he was writing to all the people of the church, not individual members.

And Paul gave a standard for the people to judge their work by. Paul first mentions their work for Christ in the midst of persecution, of pursuing the goals of the Gospel in spite of all that went on around them. Paul points out that the focus for all their activities is Jesus Christ. And that is the standard by which they, and we today, should measure our work. Does what we do glorify Christ?

The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees posed a questions to Jesus regarding taxes and obedience but there is more meaning behind the question. What are our priorities and what should they be?

The Pharisees come to Jesus, again seeking to trick him into make some type of false statement. This time, as we read in the Gospel, it was a question about taxes. Should the people of Israel pay taxes to the Roman government, something no self-respecting Jew wanted to do. It was one of those questions that can get a person into a lot of trouble. If Jesus were to say that it was proper and right to pay taxes, then He would lose the support of his followers. But, if he were to side with the Pharisees, then they would be able to say that he was working against the Roman government and he would be arrested for insurrection.

It is important that we see how Jesus answered the question. Instead of paying taxes, Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar that which was his. “Render” means to pay back and in using that word, Jesus says to pay back to the government that which was owed. As followers of Christ, we still have an obligation to the earthly government and that obligation is not removed until it becomes sinful to do so. There is no conflict between following Christ and living on earth, nor should there be.

What are our priorities? How shall we live? Shall we live in a world where Christ is a part of our lives only on Sunday, leaving the Gospel lesson behind when we leave the church building on Sunday afternoon?

Some two hundred and fifty years ago, the first circuit riders came to this area, bringing the message of the Gospel to all who would hear it. They sought to establish Methodist societies that quickly became Methodist churches. They left behind laity to carry on the work until the next time they would visit. They did not come alone for they brought the Holy Spirit with them.

As Moses stood in the cleft of the rock to observe the passage of God, he was not doing so for his own gain but rather for the assurance that God would be present in the adventure of faith that the people of Israel were to undertake. It was this assurance that told the Israelites and tells us today that God would be present throughout all our undertakings.

Today should be a renewal of our combined efforts to make the Gospel known to the world. Paul reminded us that there are many parts to the body of the church but there is only one church. And it is through the body that the work of the church is accomplished. Whether it was an ordained minister who preached at the early Methodist society meetings or a lay speaker, that was the message. It made no difference whether it was the minister or the laity who visited the sick, helped the homeless, or supported the downtrodden, the message of the Gospel was spread throughout early America. So too is that the case for today. In celebrating Laity Sunday, we are saying that we are all instruments of God’s message in this world today.

 

What Do You See?


Here are my thoughts for tomorrow.
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So Jesus held up the coin and asked “whose head was on the coin?” The people responded “the emperor’s.” And Jesus said “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s.”

We know that this episode in the Gospel reading for today was a test by the Pharisees and Sadducees to see how Jesus would deal with the Roman occupation of Israel. If He was to acknowledge Caesar as the ruler of all, then they would be able to say that He was not the true Son of God. But if Jesus were to have said that anything that would have in effect denounced Caesar, then they could say to the Roman authorities that Jesus was a threat to the state. In the end, Jesus gave the answer that trapped the Pharisees and Sadducees. It also serves as somewhat of the basis for the separation of church and state in this country today.

But it is becoming apparent that the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees are looking to close the gap between church and state. It seems to me that they are unwilling to accept any answer which differentiates the heavenly kingdom of God with an earthly kingdom here on earth. In today’s political climate, it is unlikely that even Jesus would pass this modern day litmus test.

And this modern day litmus test is even being applied to individual Christians, no matter whether it is in the political arena or not. Tony Campolo noted that the image of Christians goes beyond a simple declaration of political allegiance (which is probably incorrect no matter what side of the political spectrum you might be on). To say that you are an evangelical Christian is to invite people to say that you are a ‘bigot’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘male chauvinist’, or a ‘reactionary’.

But if you asked those whom might describe Christians in those terms to describe Jesus they would say ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) How is it that there is such a wide discrepancy between what people think of that who should be guiding our lives and what people think of us?

But to be an evangelical Christian is to be one who takes the Gospel out into the world. It is a message of bringing hope to the poor; it is a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also a message telling others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.

With everything making demands on our lives, we also find it hard to publicly declare that we are, in fact, Christians. But the public perception is that if you say that you are a Christian then you must be conservative and if you say that you are a liberal, then you have no faith or are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And each group, despite their claims of openness, turn away individuals whose views are not exact duplicates of accepted party doctrine.

It is really interesting to contrast the public perception of Christians with what people thought some two thousand years ago. If we had lived in the eastern area of the Mediterranean Sea during the beginning of Christianity, we might have seen, hastily scrawled on the walls of buildings, a crude outline of a fish. No big deal, we might think since we were walking through a fishing village.

But to be a Christian in those days was to invite persecution. To be identified as a Christian was to risk arrest and trial, to be thrown into the arena to fight for one’s life against lions or gladiators. It was to invite death for what you believed. You could not greet others openly and you could not use the sign of the cross, for that would immediately label you as a threat. So you used a fish, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

People risked their lives and well-being to become Christians because they had seen the power of the Good News in transforming lives. And people saw in them a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that were encountered nowhere else in the world around them. (Adapted from “Reasons for Joy” by Huston Smith, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

What is it that people see when they see us? The story about the coin and the image on the coin was told because we need to know that, whatever allegiances we owe here on earth, our true allegiances are to God first. But, for many people, we use the story to categorize our lives.

What would happen if it was one of us who Jesus lifted up for all to see and he were to ask “what do you see hear?” How would we answer? Thomas Kelly, the noted Quaker missionary, educator, speaker, writer and scholar wrote

We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. (In “Balance Sheet” by Judith Johnson – Siebold, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

Kelly continued by pointing out that in this committee of selves there is no chairman; there is no center to which we can anchor our lives. As a result,

We are faced with the dilemma of what direction our lives should take. Too many people, too many activities demanding too much of our time lead to a confusing outcome. We are also not willing to accept the solution that Kelly suggested that of surrendering all to God. (Adapted from “Balance Sheet” by Judith Johnson – Siebold, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

Now is the time to tell the people that caring for the poor and the vulnerable is what Christianity is about. (Matthew 25: 35 – 40 and Isaiah 10: 1 – 2) Now is the time to tell the people that caring for God’s earth is what Christianity is about. (Genesis 2: 15 and Psalm 24: 1) We need to remind people that truth will set us free, not simply saying what must be said to justify one’s actions. (John 8: 32) We must show that human rights, respecting the image of God in every person, are central to being a Christian. (Genesis 1: 27) We must remind people that a consistent ethic of human life is to obey the biblical injunction to choose life. (Deuteronomy 30: 19) Now is the time to remind people that God calls us to be peacemakers, not makers of war. (Matthew 5: 9) We must remind people that God no longer crowns kings and that war in God’s name is not consistent with the basic Gospel message. (Matthew 6: 33 and Proverbs 8: 12 – 13, From www.takebackourfaith.org) Our struggle should not be to fight for a return to Christendom; rather it should be a struggle to maintain the freedom that God has given us. (Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age, pg. 72)

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians should ring true with us today. Even though they risked persecution for their public expression for Christ, they became examples for others in the region. It was not just by words that this was done; it was by their actions as well. As Paul notes, others in the area reported that it was the actions of the Thessalonians that showed them who Christ was. What would Paul say to us these days? Are our actions such that others can see the Holy Spirit working in us?

What can we expect for this action, for showing the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Probably not a whole lot, since the public expects something totally different. This is a public and a time where people value their allegiance to earthly matters more highly than they do any rewards that might be gained in heaven. But consider that Moses found favor in God’s sight for the work that he had done. And God granted favor and glory to Moses for that work.

Shall we, just as Moses, find that cleft in the rock that will protect us and allow us to see God in all of His glory? When we sing “Rock of Ages” we are reminded that God protected Moses so that Moses could see God passing by. The cleft in the rock was made so that Moses would be protected.

  1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee; let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure.
  2. Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s commands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.
  3. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
  4. While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyes shall close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. (UMH #361)

So too does the presence of the Holy Spirit protect us from the world around us. We need not fear what we do, provided of course that it is with the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us. If our allegiances are to other gods, if our allegiance to Christ as our Lord and Savior only takes hold for one or two hours on a Sunday morning, then we cannot expect much protection.

Jesus held up the coin and asked whose image was on the coin. We are held up in full view of the public and the world is asked “What do you see? Whose image do you see?” How shall we respond?

As we struggle in this world, can we not hear Christ calling us to Him? As we go through this world, can we not hear Christ calling us to do His business? We are reminded that when Mary came to the tomb that first Easter morning, she saw nothing. But the angel told her that Christ was not there because He has risen from the dead, just as He said He would. And then she saw Him. Her response was to go tell others that she had seen Christ, alive and present in this world. What will be your response?