What Will You Do?

This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 1999.  The Scriptures were Judges 4: 1 – 7, 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11 , and Matthew 25: 14 – 20.


The reading from the Old Testament today comes at an interesting time in Israel’s history. It was the time between the leadership of Moses and Joshua and the rise of the great Israelite kings.

This was also a time, as was noted in the beginning of the reading when Israel was straying from its path with God. As God had promised, as we heard in the covenant made last week, when the people of Israel strayed, God would not protect them. But when they followed God, then God protected them and helped their armies defeat their enemies.

At this time, leadership came from a group of individuals collectively known as judges, though the people wanted a king just like the countries around them. Never mind that God had said He would be their once and future King, if other countries had a king, they wanted one too. We may think of judges as something like magistrates or county executives who oversaw the daily activities of the nation. But these judges were more than simple county executives; their powers were note simply limited to the executive branch but included the legislative, judicial, and sometimes military branches as well.

Judges did not get their position through election by the people or through hereditary; they were called to serve and empowered by God.

The acknowledged leader of Israel at this time was Deborah. Now, at this time, Israel and the other ancient societies around it were patriarchal in nature. All the leadership positions, be they priests, town elders, military leaders, or simply just the head of households were occupied by men. What counted most, then, in the selection of Deborah to serve, as the judge at this time, was not her gender but rather her gifts and talents and her calling by God to serve.

And even today, what counts the most are not the limitations placed on people by society and societal views but how God enables us to work.

That is the meaning of the Gospel message for today. The passage for today is often used for financial reasons because the talent referred to was a unit of money. But I like to think of the word in its broadest sense, the gifts and abilities one has to use.

For even if we have but one talent, if we fail to use that talent, then we will have gained nothing. But, on the other hand, if we use those talents that we have, then we find that our abilities and capabilities quickly expand and we gain more from our use of those talents.

And even if we simply have one talent, should we not use that talent to its fullest ability? Suppose all that you can do is say hello to someone. Just because you don’t know that person, is that a reason to not say hello? The story is told of a church that received a check from a lawyer representing the estate of one individual. The check was of such a size that it could be used as a down payment for the parsonage that the church was contemplating buying. And why did this church get a check of such a value from an individual no one knew? Because that individual had once visited that church and people had stopped and said hello. Even the simple talent of saying hello can provide many great rewards.

But against that backdrop is the fact that we sometimes view this use of our talents with cynicism. This last week we celebrated Veterans’ Day. It is a time when I think of honored veterans, the men and women, buried alongside the members of my family, my grandfather who served in the Army during World War I and through 1943 and my father who served in the Air Force during World War II and through 1964, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Was not the only talent many of them had a willingness to serve?

On March 22, 1980, paramilitary forces in La Paz, Bolivia assassinated a Jesuit priest by the name of Luis Espinal. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following mediation

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 towards chaos.

A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen. . .

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph . . . with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed.

Your enemies have failed.

You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us?

We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future.

You are with us and you are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces.

We are not in a game of chance . . .

You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!

So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world.

Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever . . . and death will disappear.

I do not know why Father Espinal was assassinated though I can imagine it was because of the message he preached and the challenge he presented to the people of his community. Against that backdrop, it is very easy for us to say “Let others do it, it is too great a task for me.”

But we cannot get off that lightly. Even if we are not called to serve in the world, there are problems here in New York that demands our attention and presence. To be a presence in this world is a daunting enough challenge. We are just a little church, in the hills of New York. How can we do anything?

First of all, if the statistics that I am familiar with are still relatively the same, we are not a small church but rather a medium-sized one. Second, borrowing from Pastor Paul Rosa of the New Prospect Church down the road, who wrote in his church’s most recent newsletter,

A small church is not necessarily one “one the way” to becoming a megachurch. And we certainly should not measure our ministry by statistics. But, there is no faking it, no anonymity in a Wee Kirk. No hiding behind a busy program schedule and four-color brochures. What we must offer to the Lord and show to the world is a community that is visibly different, bearing witness in our lives, relationships, and conduct that our Lord is the one who died and rose again, to heal our broken lives and cultures.

Our work today cannot be accomplished solely through what we think we might do. There are times that we, like the people of Israel, so many years ago, wish for a strong leader to guide them and direct them. Listen carefully to the political rhetoric of the coming campaign and you will hear that call. But, should we not look at what we can do.

That is part of the reason why I put that insert in today’s bulletin. That may not be a comprehensive list of talents that one can use and it is certainly not a comprehensive list of areas where one can use those talents, but it is a start. And as we begin the planning for the coming year, I want you to think about how you can use the talents that you have to help this church and make its presence in the community a stronger one.

It is a frightening thought, I am sure, to do what the Lord commands you, not someone else, to do. So many of the leaders of the past often thought that God wanted someone else to do His work. But when God calls you to serve, as he called each of the judges, it is because it is your talents, your skills and abilities that are needed at this time.

Yes, it is frightening. But Paul told the people of Thessalonians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love” and wear as a helmet “the hope of salvation”, not as decorations to be worn and displayed for all to see but rather as the source of strength for one’s work in this world.

You have the list of talents before you; there is a category for other talents not listed. You have the list of places where those talents can be used as well as a category of “other” in case there are areas that are not listed. My friends, the question before you this day is “What Will You Do?” with the talents you have?


The Time Is Now

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2002.  The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.


In the three or so years that I have lived in New York I have attended or participated in at least six weddings. The old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same certainly applies to weddings. No matter whether it is the 21st century or the early days of the Christian era, planning a wedding is a long and time-consuming process.

There are a number of weddings mentioned in the Gospels. Jesus’ very first miracle was performed at the wedding in Cana when he changed the water into wine at the behest of his mother (John 2: 1 – 3). This was more than a simple social error since the family had the obligation to provide a feast of the socially required standard. I am sure there are mothers around today who can relate to the panic that must have run through the bride’s family that day.

On more than one occasion Jesus spoke of the wedding feast and the preparation that went into planning a wedding of that time. Notes from that time tell us that the wedding planning began a year in advance with a marriage contract between the bride and groom. A year later the groom went to the bride’s house where the bride was presented to him. This was followed by a procession to the groom’s home where a festive wedding banquet was held. This banquet could last up to a week, depending on the resources of the groom.

Some weeks ago, the Gospel reading spoke of the wedding and noted that invitations had been sent to the guests over a year before the actual wedding in order that the guests could make preparations. We are reminded that Jesus used this story to remind those listening to him that His coming had been announced long before Jesus came to Galilee. The second invitation was to let the invitees know that the time had come for them to come to the wedding. Again, Jesus used that analogy to announce that now was the time of His coming.

In the Gospel reading for today, the ten virgins are waiting for the procession of the bride and groom from the wedding to the groom’s house for the feast. The use of the lamps is necessary because this procession was typically a nighttime one. The five wise virgins are complimented and rewarded for the preparation while the five who were not so wise are punished for their lack of wisdom, for their squandering of what had been given to them. Just as it would be embarrassing for the family to run out of food or drink at the banquet, so too must it have been embarrassing for those five to be shut out of the wedding festivities.

But the message we must take from this is our preparation for the coming of the Lord. Our preparation must begin from the moment we know that Jesus is our Savior; it cannot wait for the moment when we really need His presence. We know that Jesus is part of our lives; we do not know when the time will come when we will meet Him.

The Thessalonians expressed a concern that they would not be a part of the Second Coming of Christ. They had mistakenly thought that only those who were alive at the time of the coming of Christ would witness and share in the glory of it. The fact is that Christians who have died will be raised first and so go before the living to the gathering in the sky. In writing this portion of the letter, Paul is looking for a practical and immediate response to the great doctrinal teaching of the Second Coming. We, like the Thessalonians, should remind each other of the truth of Christ’s presence as a source of comfort in times of death and stress. Paul wrote “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18) in the present tense so that they would be a constant comfort as we do wait for the time to come.

But what shall we do while we wait. Do we sit back and let everything go? Or do we take a stand against the forces that distract us from this simple basic truth?

The Old Testament reading today comes at the end of Joshua’s time as the leader of the Israelites. Joshua’s words are an appeal to Israel to choose between God and the many false substitutes around them. If they were not to choose God, if they were not to serve the Lord, then they would have to choose between the gods that their ancestors had worshipped or the gods of the people who lived around Israel. It is a fitting tribute to his leadership that Joshua clearly and unambiguously takes the side of the living God. Joshua showed that a leader must be willing to move ahead and commit to the truth regardless of the people’s inclination.

In response, the people acknowledged that all that had transpired was because of God and that all that they had gained was because of God’s presence in their lives. To remember God and what He had done was to insure that they would continue to serve Him. But history also shows that the people of Israel were quick to forget what it was that God had done for them. Joshua’s challenge that day is to make the commitment to serve God more than a statement but rather the basis for action. This challenge is given to us today as well.

When John Wesley began his ministry after Aldersgate, Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, confronted him:

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.“ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)

Wesley knew that his ministry would not be defined by the place but by the time and that to delay the time would delay the ministry. If one is to find success in their own ministry, it will because they do not wait for the moment or rely on the past. We cannot wait for a time that is at our convenience; we must act when the time is now.

It is possible to come to this table today without worrying about tomorrow. It is possible that our ministry will never be called up. But those are possibilities that can never be considered, for to do so would be to make everything Jesus said and did meaningless in our lives today.

We can never know when that invitation to heavenly banquet will be received and neither should we ever worry about that. What we do know is that, like the Israelites so many years ago, when the torch of leadership was passed to a new generation, that we must renew the covenant first made by the blood of young lambs shed for Passover and then by the blood of the Lamb on the cross at Calvary.

The time is now to say that we will serve the Lord our God with our heart, our mind, and our body.


Where Shall You Stand?

This Sunday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.


This sermon is being prepared at a time when we are preparing for the singular most political act of our life and at a time when we quietly (perhaps too quietly) remember those who have fallen on the field of battle.  Whether we wish it to be or not, Election Day is somehow intertwined with Veteran’s Day; for those we have elected in the past and those we elect next Tuesday and in elections to come will have, in some part, the command of those who have died or will die on fields of battle.

Our thoughts of wars to come should be tempered by our thoughts of wars past.  Yet, it would seem that we would rather not think about them at all.  We have turned our commemoration of Memorial Day into a celebration of summer and we barely even know what the significance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month means or why Armistice Day is now called Veterans’ Day. 

We are fighting in at least two wars overseas right now yet we see or hear nothing related to the costs in human terms or the future of this country.  A war against terror cannot be fought on traditional battlefields with traditional weapons; a war against terror is fought against the causes of terror including poverty, hunger, sickness and disease, oppression and inequality. We seem to blindly accept the words of our leaders that we are winning a war against terror but yet we still send troops overseas. 

We have also forgotten what Robert E. Lee said, “It is good that war is so horrible or we might grow to like it.”  General Lee also said “What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”

It is not a question of do we fight or should we fight; it is a question of how do we solve the problems of the world without resorting to violence and power.  This is not a statement of appeasement or capitulation; it is a statement that says we must seek solutions to war and violence before war and violence are given the chance to develop.  We know what causes war but what do we do to remove the causes of war from our lives?  We know that a group of people or a nation oppressed will seek to rise up so why do we not seek to remove the oppression?  We know that a people starving and impoverished will seek ways to find food and resources, so why do we not work together?  Yet, we willingly and easily listen to leaders who offer the blood and sacrifice of others in exchange for the promise of easy victory at no cost.  We accept those words because we see war as the ends to a mean, not a continuation of the process.

Yes, there are governments and there are people whom we may call evil.  We must work to see that such individuals do not dominate this world.  But, is using their ways the best way to defeat them?  Or, in using their ways, their methods, do we not become like them?

We see it in our political rhetoric today.  If we cannot win the people with our ideas, we will use their fears.  It is often much easier to cloak our opponents with the mantle of darkness and evil than it is to offer a new vision.  For a new vision can only be seen in the light of truth, justice, and equality; false teachings will quickly die in such light.

The other day I got a chance to hear Janis Ian speak about her career. In 1966, she recorded a song called “Society’s Child”. This was a very controversial song when it was released because it dealt with the subject of inter-racial dating. In her interview, Ms. Ian recounted how protesters almost drove her off the stage and out of the profession. But she continued to sing and during this one performance, when those who were protesting her song looked like they would attack her, the theater management shined lights on them. In that light, where others could see them, they quickly stopped their harassment and tried to hide. It has been said time and time again that false teachings will wither in the light of truth. This is but just one example.

In the 1960’s did we win more with the Peace Corps or our various military corps? Did our leaders then and do our leaders today understand what force can or cannot do?  Will those whom we elect in two days understand the outcome of their decisions and the effects that such decisions will have?

We have created a world in which hatred, violence, and war are seen as the solution to the problem rather than part of the problem.  It is time that we take a stand against this path; it is time that we take a stand for what is right.

I am not saying that we should say to the person whom we elect as Commander-in-Chief this Tuesday that they will be expected to lead our troops, the young men and women of this country, into the next big battle.  I am saying that whomever we elect must be prepared to do all that he can do to insure that such a battle doesn’t take place.  And that is a statement to each one of us that we must do all that we can do to insure that the next battle doesn’t take place.

And while we must demand that our leaders stand with us, we must stand against the changes we see in the world that lead us to more wars and more violence.

You will say to me that it is impossible for an individual to change the system that is so large that it threatens to dwarf us.  But to stand against poverty, against hunger, against sickness, against injustice and equality and for righteousness is more than dashing off letters to Congress or refusing to buy products that threaten the health and safety of both the buyer and the worker.

We need to invest energy in remembering what and how our spiritual ancestors stood against the corruption, the injustice and the oppression of their times.  Three thousand years ago, the prophet Amos spoke out against the direction society was headed.  It was a time when great wealth was flowing into the country but it was also a time when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.  It was a time when the people did everything “right”; they tithed, they kept the Sabbath.  But the people, despite their apparent religiousness, ignored the poor and the downtrodden.

Is that not the truth today?  There are over two thousand verses in the Bible that deal with wealth and poverty and our responsibility to the poor; yet we ignore these words and say that any discussion is irrelevant to the problems of poverty and its effect on the poor.

If there is poverty, hunger, sickness, or oppression in this world; there will be violence and destruction, for violence and destruction grow out of poverty, hunger, sickness and oppression.  We cannot seek justice and equality in other lands if we do not seek justice and equality at home.  We cannot say that we need a strong defense for national security if there are people we are protecting who have nothing.  We have forgotten the lessons that tell us that we cannot have both guns and butter; we will have to learn that we need butter before we can have guns.

We cannot have a god that only serves us when we desire it to; we must also serve God when He demands that we do.  It is our Biblical faith that calls for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” to stand with Jesus Himself on the behalf of those who cannot.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, in Making All Things New, wrote

The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence.  No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now.  Therefore we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year, in order to become more fully aware of our hunger for the Spirit.  As long as we have only a vague inner feeling of discontent with our present way of living, and only an indefinite desire for “things spiritual,” our lives will continue to stagnate in a generalized melancholy.  We often say, “I am not very happy.  I am not content with the way my life is going.  I am not really joyful or peaceful, but I just don’t know how things can be different, and I guess that I have to be realistic and accept my life as it is.”  It is this mood of resignation that prevents us from actively searching for the life of the Spirit.

Our first task is to dispel the vague, murky feelings of discontent and to look critically at how we are living our lives. This requires honesty, courage, and trust.  We must honestly unmask and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games.  We must trust that our honesty and courage will lead us not to despair, but to a new heaven and a new earth.

When the Israelites crossed the River Jordan, the leaders were right there, in the middle of the River.  Joshua did not say to the Israelites, “cross the river where I show you.”  He stood in the river with the other leaders and said, “Now you can cross.”  The people could not have crossed the river until the appointed leaders carried the Ark of the Covenant into the River.  It was that direct involvement that insured that the people could cross.

Jesus spoke of leaders who would carry the burden instead of giving it to others to carry.  Jesus very bluntly points out that difference between the leaders and the people.  The leaders placed the burden on the people while taking all the glory.  And when it came time, Jesus carried the burden for all of us.  We come to the table today because that is what He did.

Jesus presented us with the concept of the servant-leader, the leader who didn’t stand in front of the people for the glory of the task and hide when the task was tough but rather was there with the people where the work needed to be done. Paul is pointing out that he and his companions in ministry did not expect “extra-special treatment” for what he was doing.  Paul also noted that he was pushing the people of Thessalonica to lead lives worthy of the glory of God.

We must take a stand today.  On the eve of the Armistice of the Great War, the war they said would end all wars but only caused more, that we will not only say we are against war but we will begin working to make sure that there are no more wars.  We will do that by saying that Gospel message to feed the hungry, heal the sick, find homes for the homeless and bring hope to the oppressed is more than just words in a book but the goal of life. We must give dignity and the means to a quality life to all people, not to just a few. Again, we recall that Jesus gave dignity and meaning to the life of those who sought Him after society had rejected them; so too are we called to do the same.

We remember that Christ called us to follow Him; we remember that He stood for us against slavery to sin and death.  He calls us to stand with Him today.  Where shall you stand?

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here? I think that is the question that the Israelites must have been asking themselves. Over the past few weeks, we have read of the Israelites travel through the wilderness and across the River Jordan. Now they are in the Promised Land. Now what do they do? Where do they go from here? Can’t we stay by the river in the shade of the trees where it is cool and comfortable? Must we leave the banks of the river and move on from here?

I think that the same is true for the church today. How many people come to church because it is comfortable and it offers comfort and protection from the outside world? It seems to me that churches today do not challenge the member to leave the banks of the river but stay in the shade. The message given is for the here and now; there is no thought for the future.

Clarence Jordan wrote, “It is one thing to enter ‘the narrow way’ of discipline and complete dedication to Christ and the kingdom; it is another thing to keep on climbing this upward trail.” (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan, Chapter 13) We see a lot of people who come to Christ full of ambition and enthusiasm. But when things do not go as they should, these are the ones who stop by the wayside. Perhaps that is why churches who preach the current “Gospel-lite” are successful and why they keep growing.

After all, if you don’t mention what comes next or what is around the next corner, there is no reason to give up or stop one’s journey. If the promise of the Gospel is a fancy car and riches beyond belief while you are on earth, why would you even think of tomorrow and what might lie ahead?

I won’t say that many of today’s preachers are false prophets (though I think that Clarence Jordan would do so) but is their message a true message? Yes, these modern day preachers have the right degrees and they are successful. How could you preach success if you were not successful yourself? These modern day preachers are very polished speakers, articulate and easy to listen to. But then again, in this day and age, doesn’t one have to be articulate and easy to listen to in order to gain an audience?

The message that Jesus brought implies that the future will not be an easy one. The Good News that Jesus proclaimed involved sacrifice and effort on our part. We know of the rich young ruler who found out that he could not take his riches with him into heaven; we read that when Jesus started to speak of the difficulties that lie ahead people started to leave.

In telling the story of the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 1 – 13), did He not say that those who think only in the here and now get left behind? It was those who prepared for the future who were welcomed into the banquet, not the ones who lived in the present moment.

And what was the challenge that Joshua put forth in the Old Testament reading for today? Was that not a challenge to move into the future rather than stay in the moment? This chapter in Joshua (Joshua 24) celebrates that moment in time when people stepped beyond chronos and into kairos. They moved from the present moment into the future and the fullness of time through God.

The challenge for the people that day on the plain of Shechem was to reject the present and the gods of now and embrace the future-oriented covenant that God is offering. In his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18) Paul challenges the reader to see beyond the expected to that time when all will share the boundless hope offered by the Gospel message.(Adapted from “A Kairos Community” by Robert Roth, Sojourners, November 2005)

We cannot enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land if we rest on its shores. We crossed the River Jordan but that only is one part of the journey. Now we must move up from the banks of the river onto the higher ground. We see and hear our civilization crashing around us, much as tornados rip through the heartland of this country every spring and summer. We have seen the hopes of many drown in the rains that have accompanied the hurricanes of 2005.

Many years ago, I came across an interesting little book, “The Gospel According to Peanuts” (Robert L. Short, 1964). In one of the chapters, Short showed the strip where Linus built a monstrous sand castle when it started to rain. As the strip concludes, Linus’ work has all been washed away and he is saying that there is a lesson to be learned. As we see from Short’s book the panels from this particular strip are interspersed with Jesus’ parable about the two men who built their houses on sand and rock respectively (Matthew 7: 24 – 27). When the rains came, the house built on the sand was washed away; the house built on the rock stood. And Linus knew that there was a story among the raindrops. Those that hear these words and listened to the words are the ones who built their house on the rock. Those who did not listen to the words are the ones who built their house on the sand.

For us this story, like the story of the ten virgins, is about the future and preparation. Are we prepared for the future? Are we willing to move into the future? If our foundation is strong, if our foundation is built on the rock, then we are prepared and can move forward. The words of Jesus both provide the foundation and the call for action.

Shall we stay on the river bank, building our hope and future on the sand of the river? Or shall we move further down the path that only begins at the river’s edge? Shall we follow Christ, even if the road that we walk leads to three crosses on a far away hill? What have we to fear by following Christ? Has He not said that He would be with us along the way? Has he not said that we need to suffer on the cross for He has already done so, for our sake? Shall we stay or shall we go forward into the future? Where do we go from here?