“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

“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 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 Beginning

Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation Sunday.  I am preaching at Dover UMC, Dover Plains, NY this Sunday.


I recently completed reading Brian McLaren’s new book, “Everything must change.” It is an interesting book and I would encourage everyone to read it. What he writes speaks volumes about the future of Christianity and the church in its various denominational forms.

McLaren is associated with the post-modern or emergent church movement of today. This is the “new” label that is applied to churches today in an effort to show the public that church is “hip” or connected with the times. I have not quite figured out what exactly post-modern or emergent churches are, except that it is somehow a new form of worship. I sometimes get the impression that if you have a coffee shop associated with the church or if the church is associated with a coffee shop, then it qualifies as an emergent church. I think that the church and Christianity is much more than that.

The problem is that we often do not know what Christianity is or what the relationship of the church to Christianity really is. When I read and reviewed (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/06/11/it-is-no-secret/) McLaren’s previous book, “The Secret Message of Jesus”, I was initially confused. What was the secret that McLaren was trying to tell us about? After all, everything that he wrote in that book was perfectly clear to me and I could not see how the message that Jesus brought to us two thousand years ago could be considered a secret. But, and this is a big but, when you hear the message of so many preachers and ministers today, you begin to understand why the message is a secret.

The primary message of many churches today is not the message that was presented some two thousand years ago. It has been subverted, distorted and hidden. The message of the church today has no relationship to the words Christ spoke in the hills of Galilee. The message brought forth today is no longer a message of hope and promise but condemnation and exclusion.

The message of the Bible is timeless; it is neither frozen in time nor does it bend with the thoughts and processes of society. Fundamentalists see God’s word as frozen in time and its message can only be interpreted in one way. Today, when someone says that they speak for God or they know what God wants us to hear, the chances are that they are only speaking for themselves and using the message of Christ for their own self-interest and selfish goals.

The image of the public church is described in today’s Gospel message. (Luke 18: 9 – 14) You have the Pharisee who comes to the temple and prays what I call the “self prayer.” He is not asking forgiveness for what he has done but rather justification. He has no concern for anyone other than himself. On the other hand, the tax collector recognizes that he is not worthy and he seeks forgiveness. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him; the tax collector stands in the shadows, embarrassed to be there.

I came to the conclusion many years ago that the primary threats to the church were really not the people in the shadows but, rather, those modern day Pharisees who hold their lives up as exemplary and beyond reproach. I saw and continue to see those who see the church as their own personal showcase, places where they can laud their status and power over others.

I am not alone in this view of the public church. As I noted in my blog (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/10/13/the-lost-generation/) two weeks ago, there is a report noting the decrease in young people coming to church. They see the hypocrisy of today’s church and saying that they do not want to be a part of it. People are leaving the church because they see the hypocrisy of the church and they do not know where to find the true message.

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

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

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

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

In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”; an experience similar to Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. It was the same love that we understand the taxpayer received that day in the synagogue that was the central part of today’s Gospel reading.

Luther came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.

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

Luther was labeled a heretic for this act of defiance against the church of his time. When his preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html)

I have been told many times in my life that we are to make disciples for Christ. I have to agree that we should do so but we cannot do so by force nor can we do it as a means of subversion. You cannot say to a starving man that the bread you offer is theirs only if they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Oh, they will say what you want to hear, but how true will that confession be? It is noted that missionaries in China would give rice to the Chinese if they would become Christians. When the rice ran out, the converts left and became known as “Rice Christians.”

The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life. Would people be willing to do this if the church’s message was the true message of Christ?

One of the reasons for the Methodist church is that we saw early on that hunger and poverty must be overcome before one’s heart is truly open to the Holy Spirit. And that is one of the things that McLaren is writing about in his new book. If we do not focus on the things that cause poverty, hunger, sickness, and terrorism, then the message that Jesus Christ brought to us is meaningless and lost.

While there are those who see the words of the Bible frozen in time, there are others who say that the Bible is flexible in what it says. They are not willing to make the choices required of them when answering the call to be Christ’s disciples. Though the crowds that followed Him were initially large, they tended to get smaller when they heard what was asked of them. The message of Christ is demanding but the rewards are plentiful.

There are many people today who are not going to like this message. They prefer that we blame poverty, sickness, illness and terrorism on sin and say that we must impose God’s kingdom on the people of the earth. Where Jesus called for us to make disciples of the people of the earth, I think that many ministers and preachers would have us make servants of the people of the earth. Christ did not come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth; rather, He came so that those who seek God will find Him through Christ and that the gates of the heavenly kingdom will be open.

It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. It would not be difficult. The one reason that I considered McLaren’s book so important to the future of the church is that it gives people the opportunity to see how changes can be made. It does not offer magic formulas that will change the church. But it gives the people the opportunity to seek the changes that they can make.

The words that Paul wrote to Timothy that we read this morning are not sad words. Yes, it is clear from the words that Paul knows that he is at the end of his missionary journey and life. But Paul is not sad that his own journey is ending. Rather, he sees the good in what he has done and he sees that, through Timothy, the work will continue.

There are probably two ways to read today’s Old Testament reading. (Joel 2: 23 -32) There will be those who see a correlation between what Joel is writing and his prophecies and the end times of Revelation. If we read it that way, then there is no hope.

But it can also be read as an announcement that there is a message of hope from God for those who repent and change their ways. But we must listen to the true message, not the self-serving message of charlatans and false prophets. We must recognize that repentance requires change and we must change if we are to see a fulfillment of the Gospel message.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he speaks of being an evangelist. (2 Timothy 4: 5) To Paul, an evangelist is one who equips and encourages believers to share the Good News. That is what we are asked to do today. If we are to see a new beginning today, we must be the ones who share the Good News that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless will find homes, the naked shall be clothed, and the oppressed shall be freed.

We are called today to begin anew. We are called today to cast aside our old ways and open our hearts so that Christ can come in and we can begin a new life. We are called today to open our hearts and let the Holy Spirit empower our lives. In doing so, we can share the Good News and have that new beginning promised to us when the Gospel message was first heard two thousand years ago. It is a message that echoes through the ages and it will be up to us to see that it is carried further.