“24/7 Stewardship”

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin for this coming Sunday, 17 November 2019 (the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C). Services start at 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend.

When I first looked at the Scriptures for this Sunday, I wondered how I was ever going to focus on the topic of stewardship.  But Isaiah’s words that we were building a new world reminded me that we, God’s children, have been tasked with stewardship from Day 1.

From its very beginning, humanity has been charged with care of this world.  Yet, even today, with the warnings of climate change echoing in our ears, there are some who ignore the call and think that the Earth is theirs is to do as they please. 

It is just as important that we understand that in the passage right before today’s reading from Thessalonians, Paul is complaining about those who are convinced that the 2nd Coming of Christ is imminent and have quit working.  It is not the poor and disadvantaged, as some would have you believe, that Paul is yelling at; it is those who put themselves above the needs of their community.

Jesus warns us to beware the false prophets and teachers, the long-tongued liars who preach hatred and exclusion, who preach that all that is in the world is for a very few and not to be shared.

Our stewardship of this planet goes beyond simple gardening duties; it involves caring for all the people, no matter who they are or where they live.  It has been our task from day 1 and continues on, 24/7, until we all reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

~~Tony Mitchell

“Seeing The Trees For The Forest”

I got the call to preach on a Friday night (ah, the life of a lay speaker and a circuit rider).  I will be preaching at the Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both).


The Scriptures for this Sunday are Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1- 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.


In one of the first sermons I ever preached I pointed out that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very confused as to what century he was in. (Yes, I know that he would also be very old). 

He would look around at cars and planes and marvel how easy it would be to get from place to place.  He would look at computers and cell phones and the various combinations of computers and cell phones and be thoroughly amazed.  But I think that he would see ways to utilize each of the technologies that did not exist in the mid-18th century to better spread the Gospel message.

But he would also look around and wonder if he was, in fact, even in the 21st century.  After all, he would still see countries building empires and using military might to maintain control in the world.  He would see corporations that still oppressed the working and lower classes.  He would see individuals denied educational opportunities and discrimination because of a person’s gender or race.  He would see drug abuse and alcoholism reminiscent of 18th century England.

He would see a church indifferent to the needs of the people, where the words spoken and read every Sunday have no meaning the rest of the week. He would people proclaim loudly and proudly how Christian they were but whose lifestyle was more like a Pharisee than a sinner. He would see a church where the word sanctuary implies protection from the outside world.  He would have to wonder what happened to these people who called themselves Methodist. 

When you consider the works that were done during the Methodist Revival of the mid-18th century (schools for children, health clinics for those who had no health care, credit unions for those who did not have access to the banks, efforts to give equality to women and children, work to end slavery and discrimination) and you look around at what we are doing today, I cannot help but think that John Wesley would be very confused.

He would wonder what happened to the health care initiatives that he pursued in London and also wonder why the poor, the lower and middle classes were still at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

And why shouldn’t he be confused.  Against the backdrop of today’s form of Christianity, with what we believe and think Christianity is and what it should be, we are see the world as a forest but we can’t see the trees and we dare not venture into the depths and darkness of the forest. We know that there are problems in there, problems that we ought to deal with but we would rather ignore them and stay in our own safe shelter. Or we would much rather someone else solve the problem and neither bother us or ask to help in any way, shape, or form. We have focused so much on the “big picture” that we no longer see the little parts of the same picture.

I think about what Habakkuk might think if he were alive today (and yes, I know, he would be really, really old).  We live in a world in which people declare that that the Bible is truth. They will also tell you that the truth of the Bible allows them to plunder the environment, espouse hate in all forms, to discriminate against someone if you don’t like something about them and allows them to gather wealth without thought of source or result. The attitudes and mindset of too many people today speak to an indifference and ignorance of God’s Word.

The message of the Bible speaks to the human condition and, many times, to society’s indifference to the suffering of others.  In that sense, I think that Habakkuk’s words, first spoken so many years ago, are still true today.

We have heard the words of the prophets but, like the people of Israel three thousand years ago, have ignored them.  We are more and more like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus told Zaccaheus that He would have dinner with him that night.  The church today seems more concerned with appearances than it is with its mission in the world.  The church today clearly sees the forest but cannot identify the trees.

There are people today, and I believe that the number increases with each passing hour, who are beginning to see that the ignorance and hatred, the indifference and discrimination, the violence and anger that is so much a part of this world today will not work. But they see a church that stands by passively and does nothing and wonder what can be done.

And I know that there are those in the church today who understand that the church must do something but cannot see a way for anything to be done inside a church trapped in a collective mindset of caution and unwillingness to do what they have been called to do.

There is, out in the Methodist world, a new report entitled “A Call to Action”.  It speaks to what some in the United Methodist Church feel the denomination should be doing.  I will not make any judgment at this time because I haven’t read the report.  But I was intrigued by John Meunier’s thoughts on this report (“Call to Action: A rope of sand”), especially in some words that John Wesley wrote in his letter “Plain account of the People called Methodists”.

There were those in 18th century England who basically saw the Methodist revival as creating a schism in the Church of England.  Those in the Church of England felt that those who were called themselves Methodists were separating from the church.  But Wesley argued that those who called themselves Methodist felt that they were not a part of the church nor did they feel that they had any sort of connection to the church.  Wesley wrote

If it be said, “But there are some true Christians in the parish, and you destroy the Christian fellowship between these and them;” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed. But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, nor or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work.  (“Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:259).

I would agree with John that Wesley’s words, written in defense of Methodists and the beginning Methodist Revival,

“a much more stinging description of the state of too many of our United Methodist congregations? Are not many of us little more than ropes of sand – not fit for helping anyone climb to the higher reaches of Christian life and love?  (from “Call to Action: A rope of sand”)

So there we are, like Zaccaheus, desperately trying to find Jesus in a forest of people and wondering how it can be done.

We heard Habakkuk’s words of despair this morning, of describing a world of indifference and wondering how things could change. We also heard God tell Habakkuk that there would be a vision and that he, Habakkuk, would write it down for all to see. He was to describe that vision very clearly so that the people will see it and know what it is.  The role Habakkuk was to play was to make sure that people knew what that vision was.

Perhaps we should take a clue from Zaccaheus and find another way to see Jesus.  I know that it is an old cliché but we need some sort of alternative thinking, some outside-the-box type of thoughts.  If people cannot see Jesus, perhaps we need to find new ways of showing His presence in this world.

If we are to regain our vision of the mission of the church, we may very well have to climb the tree like Zaccaheus did and go out on a limb.  We need to leave the safety of the sanctuary and do things that reflect the message of the Gospel and, in our case, the history of the Methodist Revival.  It may mean that we look around our neighborhood and our community and see what God is calling us to do.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, one of the first things that he did was tell them how he describes what they were doing to others that he has met.  The words that we read today, the words that speak of the love of God, Christ, and community amongst the people of Thessalonica, are words that reflect what was transpiring in the early Methodists societies as well.  There was a community of faith being built, it was a community of faith that involved everyone and did not exclude anyone.

The United Methodist Church is at a point in time where its future is cloudy and uncertain.  It can continue as it has been doing and it will die.  Or it can find its soul in what it once was and be renewed.  And in its own renewal it can again be a force of change, of hope and promise in the world around it.

But it is a matter of seeing the trees instead of the forest, of seeing the opportunities that exist, even if we do not know that they exist.  It means doing things because we are called to do things instead of doing things because they are expected to be done.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I want to speak of such an opportunity that begins this Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, New York.

This past summer, my wife helped with the Vacation Bible School at Grace.  One of the things that she observed was the number of neighborhood kids who came to VBS hungry.  I don’t have the actual numbers before me but it would be safe to say that 75% of the students in the Newburgh elementary schools receive breakfast before school during the school year.  But these meals do not exist during the summer or when school is not in session.  What do they do on weekends and during the summer months?

Now, just as I hope my ministry is found in the Word and its presentation, my wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen.  It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.  🙂

But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do.  And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.”  This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It will be a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists.

I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.

I invite you to be a part of this program in whatever way you feel called to respond.  Perhaps you will come this Saturday and following Saturdays to help and possibly begin your own program.  Perhaps your presence will be in other ways.

This is not the only feeding ministry at Grace.  Our youth, along with the youth of several other local churches, have begun a feeding ministry of their own on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month.  This ministry was developed on their own initiative as well and speaks to the notion that we Methodists have been and are a part of the community.

There are times when the solution to a problem is easily seen and easily resolved. But other times the forest of humanity seems to block our vision and we have to climb a tree in order to find a solution.

It worked for Zaccaheus and he found salvation.  I think it is time that we see the trees in the forest and find the one that allows us to see our path, our salvation.

“Now What?”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 7 November 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.


When I began thinking about this sermon last week I wasn’t sure where it was leading. But as I came home from the Church Conference a thought came to me and it allowed me to begin writing the sermon. I left the Conference with a feeling of hope, that things would begin turning around. And for some reason, I thought of a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers".

For those that need their memory refreshed, this movie, starring Gene Hackman, is about a small town high school in Indiana that, in 1952 (I believe), won the state basketball championship. Indiana is probably the only state that does not classify high schools by size for the end of the season basketball tournament. Thus, all the high schools in the state participate in the one tournament. This puts the smaller schools, with their limited enrollment, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding players. With the exception of 1952, no small school in Indiana has ever won the state championship.

Now you might think that the small schools would prefer a different type of tournament setup. Yet, year after year, as people seek equity among the high schools, the small schools say that they want the single chance of proving that their schools belong with the big schools in the premier state basketball tournament.

In the movie, Gene Hackman is hired as the coach and seeks to instill a new type of offense. It is an offense whose philosophy is counter to ones the kids have played before and it is not the type of game that the alumni and townspeople want. But it is an offense that is best suited for the school to play. So there is a struggle there.

Early in the season, there is a situation where one of the players fouls out of the game and Hackman, as the coach, decides not to replace him on the floor. This means that Hickory (the high school in the movie) will finish the game with only four players on the floor.

Naturally, the townspeople go crazy, screaming that the coach is breaking the rules by only playing four players. But, then as now, there is no rule that says you must have five players on the floor. The coach knows the rules better than the townspeople. This episode, coupled with the different style of play that the Coach is trying to teach, are the catalysts for the townspeople to meet at the local Methodist Church and call for his firing. It seems likely that this will be the case until other events cause a change in the situation. From that moment, the team slowly comes together and ultimately win the state championship.

Now, the episode with the four players is, to me, similar to what is transpiring in the Gospel reading today. Instead of focusing on the resurrection and life everlasting, the Sadducees are focusing on the law that requires a brother to marry his dead brother’s wife in order to keep the family line going. It seems to me that we worry more about the legality of things than we do the spirit of things.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees are seeking ways to trap Jesus. As the ones with political power, they saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power and well being. But they had to remove Him in such a way that would not turn the crowds following Him against them. In the passage prior to today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. They wanted to get Jesus to say something that would make Him look like a political revolutionary so that they could then hand him over to Pilate. But Jesus responds that one should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God. Jesus is exalted and the Pharisees sulk as their attempt to trap Jesus fails.

In today’s Gospel reading, it is the Sadducees who seek to trap Jesus. The Sadducees reject the oral traditions that the Pharisees stringently obey. They base their teaching and thoughts on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. Since these are the books that Jewish law is based on, the Sadducees are the lawyers of their day. To them, there cannot be a resurrection and they contrive this ludicrous example to suggest that the resurrection that Jesus is speaking of is impossible. In his summation of this issue, Jesus uses the law itself to make an impact on the Sadducees.

It has to be emphasized, since it seems to have been forgotten, that Jesus Himself said that He was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus constantly fought with those who used the law to further their own ambitions, instead of protecting those persecuted and abused by others. Jesus points in the passages following today’s Gospel how the scribes sought the best for themselves while allowing others to drive the poor and unfortunate from their homes.

I think that, if we are not careful, we are going to see this same legalistic view of the Gospel in the coming days. We saw evidence in the election that "moral values" were a dominant factor in the election of President Bush. What seems to have come from this election is a view of a legalistic view of the Gospel, one that allows others to tell you what to say, what to do, and what to think.

I don’t think that is what the Gospel is about. Yes, the Gospel tells me what to think and what to say and what to do. But it does not give me the power to tell you how to behave. As an evangelistic Christian, both in name and thought, I have the duty to present the Gospel to you but only you can decide what you will do. In presenting the Gospel, I will also point out the rewards that one can gain and what is likely to happen should you choose not to follow. But I cannot make you follow the Gospel nor should I try.

Now, the people of Thessalonika are faced with a quandary. Theirs is a quandary about the meaning of the Gospel. They are hearing many ideas about the Second Coming of Christ but most of them are false, contrary to the original teachings of Paul. They are coming from teachers who are twisting Paul’s own words in order to meet their own plans. As a result, many Thessalonians feel that now is the time of the Second Coming and there is no longer any reason to work for the church.

In this passage, Paul seeks to reinforce the ideas that he presented in his first letter. He encourages the people of the church to hold fast to the ideas that were first presented to them and to which they responded. It is their faith that will prevail, not their listening to the false teachings. And it is their faith that people are hearing about.

There is also a crisis in the Old Testament reading for today. Instead of the end of the society, as the people of Thessalonika fear, it is the rebuilding of the old society that is causing the crisis in Haggai.

When some of the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, they were determined to restore the worship of God to its rightful place at the center of their lives. They planned to build a new temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, however, their resolve to do so vanished shortly after they returned to Jerusalem. They did build a new altar on the original temple site and later laid the foundation for a new temple. But when there was the first sign of trouble, construction halted. After the troubles passed and the people were free to return to their primary task, they did not do so. Though not idol worshippers like their ancestors, these Israelites had lost their passion for the worship of the living God.

When Haggai confronted the people, he addressed the problems of his day: the infertility of the land and the hard economic times. But he did not blame these problems on poor fiscal planning. Rather, he exhorted the people to focus on their spiritual condition. They were focusing on insignificant matters, like the decoration of their homes, while ignoring God’s temple that lay in ruins in front of them.

The temple was more than a building. It was the site of the people’s meeting with the living God, the symbol of the abiding presence of the Creator of the universe. If the people ignored the physical ruin of the temple, they were ignoring the spiritual wreckage in their souls as well.

The response to Haggai’s exhortation was quick and decisive. Three weeks after the message that we read today, they began to work on rebuilding the temple. Haggai noted that the Lord was with them, just as Moses had told the people in Exodus that God would be with them through their journey.

I am hoping that our response will be something similar. Right now, we are sending letters to the inactive members of the church asking them to indicate what they want to do. It is my hope that they will respond favorably to this particular request and challenge. I suppose that it is more than a coincidence that we are reading this passage today. For in three weeks, we began the celebration of Advent and I hope it will be a time of celebration and renewal.

We must focus on the one thing that will overcome all adversity and all trials, the faith that we were raised in and which, through the Holy Spirit, has led us to this day. There are times when life is at its darkest, through the death of a loved one or a setback in life. It is at those times that we are reminded that it is our faith, our belief in things unseen, that carries us through. It was the faith of the people of Thessalonika that went beyond the town limits and told people of the growth of the church.

It was the faith and desire of the people of Israel to rebuild their lives after the captivity that allowed them to rebuild the temple and again celebrate the presence of the living God in their lives. We are in a period of time when the old ways no longer seem to work. There are those who saw the results of last Tuesday’s election and asked, "Now, what?"There were those who left the meeting last Monday and asked, "Now, what?"

What we must do is to seek what we have lost. We must seek that which comes from within us and which has been there from the day we first came to know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, points out that we seem to have lost something as simple as respect — for each other, for the environment in which we live, for the values that can bring us together. He argues that we have lost the common ground upon which we can meet.

But he also argues that we can find common ground but only if it is higher than where we are now. For me, this is found much in the same way that Paul encouraged the Thessalonians – in the faith in which they were raised and the faith by which they were known. There is a need for a vision of transformation and I firmly believe that it is found in the Gospel message. A new framework, a new language, a new vision can emerge from this day if we want it too, if we resurrect our own basic personal values. These are values that Paul speaks of in his words to the Thessalonians. These values bring us together

As we look to renew this church, let us remind ourselves that it will be through the Gospel that this is accomplished. As long as what we are doing is consistent with the Gospel message and United Methodist theology, we know that we will have God’s blessing. We may have been asking "Now, what?" last week but it is clear that today, with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the question will be, "Now, how?"

“Looking To The Future”

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11 November2001.  This was also Veteran’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.


Looking to the future has always proven to be a difficult task. No matter how hard we try, determining what the future holds is a very elusive thing. And more often than not, our vision of the future is a far cry from what it eventually becomes. Consider the following monumental prophecies about the world around us made many years ago:

  1. "This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  2. "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895
  3. "Everything that can be invented has been invented." — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
  4. "I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind"
  5. "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  6. "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  7. "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year." — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  8. "We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
  9. "But what … is it good for?" — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip
  10. "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1977
  11. "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible." — A Yale Univ. management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

As these statements show, predicting the future is fraught with danger and risk. And as the time between the prediction and the actual event increases, so too does the risk. Uncertainty arises when one is not sure. And with uncertainty comes frustration. For if we are not sure about what we are doing, then we can easily get frustrated by the work that we are doing today. This frustration shows in many ways.

The Sadducees who came to Jesus that day that we read about in the Gospel were certainly frustrated. Their frustration arose because they saw their religion and their future in terms of the law and obedience to the law, not the grace of God as Jesus preached.

Throughout the Gospel, in fact, throughout the whole New Testament, there is a tension between the law and grace. Even as Paul preached grace and salvation, those who would have people rigorously follow the law plagued him.

Jesus pointed out that the future was not in terms of how the law was applied or followed but rather by one’s faith and a belief in God’s grace. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and many other hymns, understood that very clearly. When you know that he wrote the words to "Amazing Grace" after a mid-ocean encounter with God, when he realized that all he was doing to seek his future was built on a weak foundation, you come to understand what he wrought. Most importantly you understand, as he did, that it was grace that saved him, not adherence to the law and that it was grace that would bring him his future.

An adherence to the law brings a discipline but not a guarantee for the future. It is only through faith and a belief that Christ is our Savior that we are guaranteed the future. As Newton wrote, "it was grace that brought me safe thus far, it will be grace that brings me home."

Through our faith and our understanding of God’s presence in our lives, we will see the future and find a way to reach it.

In Haggai, we read about the frustration of the people of Israel. In the reading for today, the people are feeling frustrated as they struggle to rebuild the Temple. Excited as they were to have come out of exile and to be doing that which they had longed for so many years to do, they were frustrated with the task. Many felt that no matter what they did, the Temple they built would not match the splendor and glory of the old one.

Their frustrations arose because they did not look to the future but rather saw the past. And as their frustrations grew, so too did the feeling that God had abandoned them. If God had not abandoned them, then their work would produce a Temple of as a great grandeur as the old Temple.

But Haggai pointed out that the rebuilding process was the very symbol of encouragement that they wanted to have and that in rebuilding the Temple they would be reminded of God’s presence in their lives. Haggai called on the people to take courage and move forward because God had not forgotten them but was with them at that very moment. Our presence here today and in church on every Sunday is so that we can remember God’s grace, power, and presence in our lives.

The problem many times as we seek to move to the future is that we feel we must do it alone. We take on a task only in terms of what we can do, never thinking that God is a part of the process. We that happens, we are likely to be frustrated because we turn the task into something difficult. But when we allow God’s presence to be there, when we allow the Holy Spirit to provide the power that we need, then the task becomes easy.

Our service is not for the past but for the future. Haggai reminded the people that there would be a day when God will give them prosperity, a day when all their work would be justified. Our frustrations come because we cannot often see the results of what we do but we have to know and understand that what we do is never in vain. One reason why we celebrate Veteran’s Day in the fall and Memorial Day in the Spring is so that we can somehow communicate to those who have served that such service was not in vain.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians also served to encourage. He reminded the members of that Church that though the present seemed bleak and that God had passed them by, there was still a hope for the future and promise of better days. At the time Paul wrote this letter, there was a feeling that the promised Second Coming of Christ had occurred and that they, the members of the church in Thessalonica, had been left behind.

Paul reminded them to remain steadfast in the faith and to remember that the signs of the Second Coming had not yet appeared, that what they had heard and had been told were false statements, made by insecure people seeking to justify their own thoughts and actions.

To look to the future is a difficult task, especially when what we see around us leads us to believe that the future does not hold much promise. When we let that around us guide us, our actions, our deeds seem futile and we become frustrated. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, we try to find in the rules and regulations of life a basis for faith. It is no wonder that we become discouraged.

But, as Paul encouraged us to do, we hold on to the faith and understand that God’s presence in our live is not just some mystical statement but guaranteed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we cannot be discouraged.

There are many challenges facing each one of us in the coming days and years. There will be times when the future looks bleak, when our hope for the future is not so bright or as clear as we would like. But, if our vision of the future comes through our faith, then we know that there is a hope and promise. We know that the future prosperity that Haggai said would come to the people as they rebuilt the Temple will come to us because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Which Way Do We Go?

This is a sermon that I presented on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (8 November 1998) at the Neon United Methodist Church in Neon, KY.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9: 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and Luke 20: 27 – 38.


As the end of this year comes upon us, it brings us the new century closer to reality. And for many, with the new century come a fear that it is the end of the present age. As the year 999 was coming to a close, people were in panic because they were convinced that it was, in fact, the end time.

We know of course that the world did not end at that time and it is probably not going to end in some 400 days. Maybe it is not going to be the end of the world but from a technological sense, the year 2000 threatens to bring many problems for those who use computers or for those affected by the computers. This is also the time of year when the days get shorter and the darkness seems to overcome us.

For the people of ancient Israel, the darkness of the age seemed all too real. At the time of the Old Testament reading for today, many Israelites had been sent into exile and the temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of God’s presence in this world, was in ruin. (Haggai 1: 15b – 2:9)

On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

“This is what the Lord Almighty says” “In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

There must have been a sense of hopelessness and despair among the Jews that day when Haggai spoke to them. After all, with the temple destroyed and much of their country taken from their homeland, how else should one feel. I sense in today’s society something of those same thoughts and feelings. As we look around, we are convinced that the “end times” are upon us and that God has forsaken this world. It seems like the world is headed in a direction that we cannot accept yet there is nothing we can. We ask who we can turn to, what direction should we take, what can we do. For many, the church of today does not offer the answers we have for our countless questions.

It is times like this when we seek direction to our life. When there are doubts in what we do, it is only natural to turn to someone who can provide the answers. But whom can we turn to? Who can we trust to tell us the truth? But what is the truth? Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians at a time when they were convinced as they looked around at their society that it was the time of Jesus’ return. And in such times, it is only natural to look to someone for the answers. But it seemed that those who were predicting that return were only doing it for themselves, for their gain, not for God’s purposes.

Paul wrote the Thessalonians about that question (2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17)

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

But knowing what the truth is as always been a problem. Truth, both for the Thessalonians and for us, is based on that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in a system. (From Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams, page 24.) That is why Paul warned the Thessalonians to be careful whom they followed.

To the Jews of both Haggai’s time and Jesus’ time, it was felt that salvation came from following the law. We often feel the same way today. If we lead the right kind of life, if we do the right things, then we will be rewarded. Society does it part because it suggest that by following the rules society give us, success and wealth are ours for the asking. But what is the right thing to do? That was the question that the Sadducees poised to Jesus. (Luke 20: 27 – 38)

The Resurrection and Marriage

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Not then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

The Sadducees had used their interpretation of the traditional laws to gain positions of power in the Jewish community of Jesus’ time. So, it was critical for them that Jesus give the answer that they wanted to hear, the answer that they thought was correct.

But we can never expect Jesus to give us the answer that we expect or want. That answer Jesus gave is based on the fact that the resurrection order does not nor can it be assumed to follow present earthly lines. The rules by which life is governed are changed by the resurrection.

But as Paul told the people of Thessalonica,

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

But the Sadducees misunderstood this. Their concerns for following the law was only so that they could maintain their position and had nothing to do with saving grace of God. When you seek to follow earthly rules, you cannot follow Jesus. As Paul was to say latter, it is not the law which saves you but your faith.

What then is the truth? What then do we do? Is the world headed for disaster? The year 2000 is just a little over a year away. Is the end of the world coming then?

It is only natural to fear that which we do not know. In John 14: 5 we read “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?””

Well, for those that fear the new millennium, it should be noted that the new millennium doesn’t actually begin until January 1, 2001. Yes, there is still the problem that the year 2000 will bring trouble because some computers are not prepared for the change of date that will occur at midnight on December 31, 1999. But those are problems created by man, not by God. And these problems have arisen because men and women have allowed the problem to arise. It was noted many years ago that this problem could be fixed but everybody figured that they had plenty of time.

For us, the truth is very simple. In a world that we think God has forgotten, it is important to remember what he told the people of Israel some 2300 years ago. The people of Israel saw the desolation around them and had no hope when Haggai spoke to them.

‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The truth is that it is God’s grace that offers us our ultimate salvation. Our hope for the future, as hymn 368 says, is not in the laws made by man but through Jesus’ blood and righteousness

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness/ I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking stand. (United Methodist Hymnal, 368)

Our life in Christ is a new life, one that does not follow the rules imposed on us by society. Jesuit Father Luis Espinal wrote the following shortly before he was assassinated in 1980 by Bolivian paramilitary forces.

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

As the days of the year get shorter and darker, we stand on the solid rock of our faith in Christ. It is not without purpose that Advent, the celebration of Christ’s birth comes at the darkest time of the year. Christ is our salvation and our hope.

But light is not enough; light is for the sake of life. We too must have life in ourselves. We too must, like the Life himself, live. We can live in no way but that in which Jesus lived, in which life was made in him. That way is, to give up our life. This is the one supreme action of life possible to us for the making of life in ourselves. Christ did it of himself, and so became light to us, that we might be able to do it ourselves, after him, and through his originating act. (From Creation in Christ by George Macdonald)

Our promise for tomorrow lies not in what society can offer us but what Jesus has promised us. Earlier, I said that many people were seeking direction yet the direction has been laid out for us today. Thomas asked Jesus where they were going. Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”(John 14: 6) The roads we walk, the path we take all are set when we accept Christ as our Savior, when we open our hearts and let him in. The challenge I give this morning, the challenge that we face every day, the choice we must make is whether we will follow that road.

A Vision For The World

Here are my thoughts for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.  I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this Sunday. (links updated on 12 April 2008).


In last week’s Old Testament reading (1), the prophet Joel spoke of the old dreaming dreams and the young seeing visions. That statement has to be one of the most profound statements in the Bible. For, when Joel wrote those words, the nation of Israel was essentially lost and there was no hope for the future. Thus, the old have nothing to dream about and the young have no vision of the future.

In today’s Old Testament reading (2), God commands Habakkuk to write down the vision that He is about to give the people. We have to understand that the Book of Habakkuk, the source of today’s Old Testament reading, is different from the other Old Testament prophecies. Instead of delivering a message detailing the fate of the people, Habakkuk challenges God as to why the world is in such a mess.

Why, he cries, must I continually cry out against the evil and injustice of this world? Why, he cries, is there so much violence in this world?

These are words that we hear far too often today. We also ask God why there is so much violence. Why, we ask, does it seem like our society is deteriorating in front of our eyes? Why is there so much abuse of power? Why are acts of injustice and oppression so common? Why do the people argue with each other and why is there so much litigation?

Habakkuk points out that the revelation of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai has little impact on the hearts of the people who are more focused on material success. The people have little interest in living by God’s definition of fairness or His definition of what is humane.

We see the youth and young adults of this country turning away from the church. They see hypocrisy in the words and actions of today’s church. Their description of the church does not match their description of Jesus. It has often been said that if there is no vision, the people will perish.

If the youth of this country do not have a vision or if it is a vision limited by what society offers, what does that say for and to the rest of us?

We want someone to give us a vision of the future. But like Zaccaheus, who sought a clear vision of Jesus, our vision is blocked by society. But unlike Zaccaheus, we do not see the tree which we can climb.

I do not believe that our answers will come from the present church. Once, when the world was enveloped by what was called the Dark Ages, it was the church that protected and kept the idea of civilization alive. But now, many church leaders today would answer Habakkuk’s cries by saying that these are the End Times, the days of tribulation that mark the 2nd Coming of Christ.

But who are the righteous ones of which Habakkuk speaks? They are clearly not the leaders of the country. The commentary points out that it is the powerful people of Israel that corrupted justice. Micah also pointed out that it was the leaders of the country who were guilty of inhumane treatment and perpetrated injustice against the citizens of the country. (3)

In the second portion of the Old Testament reading, God says to Habakkuk to behold the proud. In the Old Testament, the proud were the Babylonians and they were marked by how they exalted themselves and boasted of their conquests and power.

Who were the proud in Jesus’ day? Who were those who exalted themselves and boasted of the conquests and power in Jesus’ time? Who are the proud in today’s society?

A proud person relies on self, power, position, and accomplishment, a truly righteous person relies on the Lord. We heard last week what Jesus thought of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders and powerful of His time. Today’s fundamentalists and conservatives are the inheritors of the mantle of hypocrisy from the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. They are inheritors of the pride-filled label Habakkuk gave to the Babylonians.

They are the ones who stand before the nation and proclaim that they alone speak the word of God. They are quite willing to condemn others while they proclaim themselves above condemnation. They would have us live in a theocracy, governed by what they say are the laws of God. But that was the society that Jesus was a part of; that was the society that Joel, Habakkuk, and all the prophets spoke out against. The society of laws that they lived in was a society without hope, without a vision of the future. It was a society that restricted people and did nothing to help them.

So, let us pause for a moment and think why Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians. (4) Paul was commending the church for being an example of what churches were supposed to be. But, as is often the case, there is more to the story. You have to look at what we did not read today and you have to see why Paul wrote the letter. This second letter to the Thessalonians was prompted because there were a number of preachers and teachers proclaiming that time of the 2nd coming of Christ was then. Paul was encouraging the church at Thessalonica to hold onto their true beliefs and not be taken in by the false teachers of their day and age.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. During that fateful campaign of he used one quote time and time again. It was a quote by George Bernard Shaw that stated “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”. And I remember that Senator Kennedy challenged the voters to do what was right, not what was necessarily the popular thing.

During a speech at the Indiana University Medical Center, he was challenged by one of the students as to where he was going to get the money to pay for the social programs he was proposing. His reply was simply,

“From you. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who will become doctors. Part of a civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don’t see many people coming here from the slums, or off of Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too. . . It’s the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Viet Nam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Viet Nam.”

The students reacted by hissing and booing him. His advisors warned him that if he was perceived as an extremist he would never win the election. However, Senator Kennedy was no longer thinking as a politician trying to maximize his vote. Instead, he was determined to say what he believed. He told Jack Newfield, one of his advisors, that he would probably not win the nomination but “somebody has to speak for the Negroes, the Indians, the Mexicans, and poor whites. Despite his pessimism, Senator Kennedy won the Indiana primary. (5)

There was another statement back then that seems so appropriate today, “if not now, when and if not me, who?”

There were those in Habakkuk’s time who remained faithful to the Lord; there remains a righteous remnant. But Habakkuk complains that they are restricted in what they can say and do because of the evil that surrounds them.

Those who still believe must not lose hope. So when God commands Habakkuk to write down the vision, it is because He has heard Habakkuk’s cries and is now responding. Those who still believe must remember that we have been given a vision that triumphs over sin and death, evil and violence. It is one reason why we come to the communion table this morning.

Two thousand years ago, the disciples gathered in the upper room to celebrate Passover. Their vision that day was a vision of the past, of an escape from earthly slavery and death. But during that Seder meal, the disciples began to receive a new vision, a vision that would be much clearer some three days later. Theirs was the vision that we have today, the vision of the Cross and the empty tomb. That is the vision that we will take with us into the world.

And the fact is that we, today, have been the messengers of this vision for almost two hundred and fifty years. This is what John Wesley first proclaimed. Salvation was, to Wesley, a present thing and it entailed not only the forgiveness of sins but the living of a new life. Wesley also believed that God had raised the people called Methodists to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. The institutions and practices of the Methodist movement were designed to enable Methodists to participate in God’s mission in the world. (6)

In other words, the Methodist church has been offering a vision for the world for a very long time. The problem is that the church has gotten away from that vision and now it is time to return.

So where does the vision come from? If we say we are who we are, it will come from us. First, it comes because we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and have allowed the Holy Spirit to empower us. Second, it will come from us because we say we are Methodists. If we are to lead a life in Christ, we must lead a life as Christ did. If we are to be the people we say we are, then what we do and say must be reflective of that.

Paul commended the Thessalonians for their forthrightness and their perseverance in holding on to the truth in spite of the false teachers of their day. We must do the same; we must set the example that shows the world the vision of Christ. In a world where the darkness of evil and injustice threatens to overcome us, it is the one little light that shines in our soul which will light the world.

Zaccaheus climbed a tree to get a better vision of the world and Jesus Christ. So too must we raise our lives up so that the vision of Christ that is in us is seen by the world around us. We are called today to open our hearts and minds to the word of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We are called to change our lives. Yes, this can be very frightening to do this. But if we do not do that today, then \fear and evil survive. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we can then open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and be empowered to carry the vision of Christ into the world. Thus we are the vision in and for the world.

(1) Joel 2: 23 -32

(2) Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1 – 4

(3) See Micah 3: 10

(4) 2 Thessalonians 1: 1- 4, 11 – 12

(5) From http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkennedyR.htm

(6) From John Wesley and the Emerging Church by Hal Knight – – This link is no longer valid; “John Wesley and the Emerging Church” should work.