“What Does It Take?”

This will be on the back page of the Fishkill UMC bulletin tomorrow, 18 June 2017 – the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A).

Genesis 18: 1 – 15, (21: 1 – 7), Romans 5: 1 – 8, Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8 (9 – 23)

One of the ethos of desert living was that one never turned away a stranger, even if that stranger might be an enemy.  The desert was far crueler than any individual or group of individuals might be and there was an understanding that you helped those traveling in the desert and they would in turn help you.

That runs very much against human nature.  We do not want to help our enemies or those who seek to do us harm.  As Jesus pointed out to the Disciples in today’s Gospel reading, people were going to find fault with them because the message the Disciples presented was often in contrast to accepted beliefs.  But Jesus told them to just do what they could do and let those results show the people the future.

This can be difficult, if for no other reason that it is so often in opposition to the “get it now” mantra of society.  Put as Paul wrote, the key is patience – do what is expected of you and you will receive the rewards at the proper time.

“Stranded In The Wilderness”

Meditation for June 22, 2014, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Romans 6: 1 – 11, and Matthew 10: 24 – 39.

When I start writing something, I have a sense of what I want to say but I have also found that sometimes this changes as I am go along. For me, this is God speaking to me as I write. It is one way that I sense the presence of God in my life.

This may not be how you feel that it happens but that is the wonderfulness of God in each of our lives; what works for you is not necessarily what works for me and what works for me may not be the best for you.

But there are also times (and they have been plenty lately) where that sense of the presence of God in my life has not been there. Such times are times when I feel as if I am the middle of the wilderness, with no path seemingly available, no future in front of me.

In the times that I participated in teaching others how to prepare a sermon, I tell the students to look at the lectionary readings for the Sunday in question and go with that one. But I never took that course and when I began preaching on a regular basis I felt the need to use all three readings together.

And there are times when I struggled trying to find the common thread to the readings. Still, as I looked at the three readings, it came to me that I needed to look at not just the three readings but the direction they take the reader.

It would be very easy to use the Old Testament reading as the backdrop for a discussion of the politics of the mid-East and what happened to Ishmael and those that came after him. But to connect that to the other readings would be a stretch and one that I didn’t want to make.

But I also know that the skills that I have, the gifts that I have been given, and my ability to use them come from God. What did the writer of Genesis tell us about Ishmael, that God was on his side as he grew up? Is that not the case for each one of us? Have there not been times in each of our own lives where we have to wonder about the skills that we have and what to do with them?

The passage from Matthew speaks also of the conflict that will arise within families when one person in the family chooses to follow Christ. But doesn’t the same strife happen when someone in the family takes a path of their own choosing rather than one that would be, let’s say, more traditional or keeping with what the family wants?

Or, on a more personal level, what is the strife that comes within one’s self, when there is a conflict between doing what you love and what you think you have to do? Society, that most powerful of driving forces today, tells us that we need to focus on ourselves, getting what we can for ourselves and not worrying about others. And yet, there is that something inside us that tells us or pushes us to pursue things that may not have the same material gain but lead to greater rewards.

When I started writing my blog, it was with the intention of keeping in the habit of writing a weekly message. After all, I had just completed a seven-year period where I was doing that as the lay pastor for three small churches in Kentucky and New York. For awhile, I thought that I would be doing that again but it didn’t come to pass. Still, when you look at my preaching schedule over the past nine years, I have been, on the average in the pulpit twenty weeks out of the year. So writing the blog has served its purpose.

But now I think that I need to see if that is where I need to be going. One of the other things that I did with this blog was focus on chemistry and chemical/science education. And I think it is time that I look more in that area than I have been doing.

We as a people, a society, a nation, and inhabitants of this planet, are at a crossroads. The signs are appearing more and more frequently that what we are doing to this planet is doing more harm than good and we are fast approaching that time when it will be too late. We will find ourselves in a wilderness of our own making and without the capability and resources to make the corrections and changes. For me, one of the problems is that we have gotten lazy in our thinking; we, quite frankly, want others to do our thinking for us. We are unwilling to think independently and critically; we are fast approaching the time when we won’t be able to even do that.

I have said it before but it bears repeating but our students leave school today with the idea that if the material is not in the text book, then it isn’t going to be taught and that all the problems have been solved and are in the back of the text book (from The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990). But what will happen when we encounter a problem that hasn’t been solved or for which the answer hasn’t been provided in advance? What do we do then?

So I need to move my thoughts in another direction, perhaps back to from whence I came, the laboratory and the mind. But I will not leave my heart nor my soul to do so.

My concern has to be that one understands where science fits, along with faith and religion, in one’s life. And that is where I think I need to focus.

Paul writes about a life in sin and a life with Christ, two clear choices. Paul writes to the Romans that they have an option, one with hope. But he also writes or implies that you don’t have to take that option but that leaves you with sin. And throughout all of his writings, to live in sin is to live in slavery. There is a freedom that can only come from Christ and in terms of what Matthew wrote, it is a freedom to do your thing, the thing that your heart, mind, and soul direct you to follow.

We are stranded in this wilderness, wondering what will happen to us. But just as Hagar saw the well of water which enable her to save her son and go on to the future that was to be, so too can we look to God through Christ and find our freedom, our path out of the wilderness.

We have a choice to make today. The simplest thing would be to do nothing, but that leaves us where we are and as time moves forward, that means we shall be left behind (pun intended). On the other hand, we have the opportunity to follow Christ, out of the wilderness and into the future. What shall your choice be?

What Are You Willing To Give?

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. I was at Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 5: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 42 – 46.


How many of you have ever gone on a cross-country trip? Were you the driver in the front or the child in the back seat? Have you ever been both (obviously at different times in your life)? I suppose that the most often uttered words from the children in the back seat of a car, most often yelled, are "Are we there yet?" This question, of immense philosophical meaning, is often followed, especially if the length of the trip is really long (say across town) by the most memorable of lines uttered by one sibling to another, "Mom, he touched me!"

Each one of us probably has a story or two that we could tell about a road trip we took with our family, with assorted tales of who did what and where it all happened. We know that the Bible, especially the early chapters, is the story of families moving from this place to that place and perhaps returning home.

But I sometimes get the impression that I am not supposed to read the scripture passages with any sort of feeling or think about what I am reading. The words were written two thousand years ago and they are not to be messed with. But if the Bible is to be an expression of who we are and how we got to this place, how can we not read the scripture without feeling the anguish, the joy, the excitement or the bewilderment that comes with the words?

A lot of questions should be running through our mind when we read the story in Genesis for today. What must Abraham have taught when God told him to take Isaac to Mount Moriah? Would he have been thinking of those times when he took Isaac with him to work, teaching him everything he could because he feared that there was not enough time in the world to teach him everything possible. After all, Abraham was an old man and nature dictates that the young shall bury their parents rather than the parents burying their young. Were there not tears in his eyes when he told Isaac that God would provide the sheep for the burnt offering? Isaac was his son, the fulfillment of the covenant made with God so many years before. He had already cast his other son Ishmael out into the desert when Sarah thought he, showed more interest in Ishmael’s mother than her. He may not have been crying on the outside but surely his heart was crying; one son lost in the desert, another son about to be sacrificed just to prove his faithfulness and love for God. What type of God demands this type of faith? What type of God would promise that his, Abraham’s descendants, would be too numerous to count and yet take away the children that would begin those families?

And we must ponder the words of Isaac as well. Would Isaac have tagged along with his father everywhere they went, asking questions and learning things? Are not the words that Isaac said along the way, asking his father where is the sheep, words born of the same curiosity, the same desire for knowledge that we have expressed on our own journeys? And can we not completely understand what Abraham so wanted to say to his son as each step up the mountain brought Abraham closer and closer to the test that God had imposed on him. Was there a trembling in his words when he told the servants to wait for them while they attended to the sacrifice? The writer of Genesis uses the plural in saying we will come back to you. But Abraham, and only Abraham, knew or thought he knew that only he, Abraham, would be coming back. Surely, he must have trembled when he spoke those words.

The hard answer to all of these questions is, of course, it was part of the covenant between Abraham and God. A covenant is a contract between two parties, an agreement that states what one party will do in return for what the second party will do. Abraham agreed to follow God and God would give him descendants that far outnumbered the stars in the sky. God never said exactly how He would do that nor was it clear to what extent Abraham would have to follow God. In this story, we know what God expects.

The problem today is that not many people are willing to put themselves into the story, let alone even think of what such a story would mean if it were they who were asked to do something such as sacrifice their only child.

We don’t see God in those terms. We see God as one who answers our prayers and gets us out of the trouble that we made. We do not seek this demanding God; we don’t want this demanding God. We do not sing of an awesome God but an easy God. We only want a God whom we can call upon when we need Him, not a God who will call upon us at the most inconvenient and inopportune time.

We live in a society today where our affirmation of a faith is not published in the back of the hymnal but in how we lead our lives. It is an affirmation that

I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;

I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;

I am a Christian but it is not the church’s role to help the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they will only steal anything that isn’t tied down.

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live your life while I am free to do whatever I please;

I am a Christian but I cannot answer the question of what would Jesus do today;

I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.

(First published in "When Are We Going to Learn?")

I don’t think that we have truly understood the nature of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant made with Moses, the covenant made with David, or the one expressed in Jeremiah. If we had, I don’t think that many of us would be in church today. We see these covenants more as promises; promises that God made with us, not the other way around.

We understand what Paul is writing, how through Christ’s sacrifice we have been saved, and we think that is it. Somehow, we think that by coming to church on Sunday and going through the motions, that everything will be okay. In one sense, I suppose that would be true. For no matter what we do tomorrow or throughout the coming week that belies everything we said and did today, if we are in church next Sunday, then we will have the opportunity to make it all right again. But we don’t always have the guarantee that we will be here next Sunday.

But the covenant between God and us is not a one-way promise. It contains the expectation that there are things that we will do as well. We are called to be Christ’s disciples, Christ’s followers. Last week, the Gospel reading spoke of the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people of the world.

Now, I must admit, from probably the very first time I ever heard that Scripture reading, I had problems with it. Not so much the actual words but how people implemented it.

It wasn’t the invitation that Jesus offered each of his disciples but a commandment. And it wasn’t so much a commandment but an order. Now, I grew up as a military brat and I have always had trouble taking orders from others, especially those whose attitude is and was one that "I know what you need to do".

That’s the problem with being an officer’s son and grandson; there is a clear demarcation of authority and unless you can show me that you have that authority, then we are going to have problems with you telling me what to do. I also grew up in the South, so hearing that one had to follow Christ or expect to die was an essential part of the Sunday message.

But, as one who moved about and saw this country during the turbulent post-World War II times, and studying the message of Christ in Sunday School, I also saw a contradiction. How is that you can tell me what I must do when you don’t do it yourself? For every clergy who was for civil rights during that time, there were two or more who were opposed to civil rights and used the Bible to justify their opposition.

I could have left the church back then. After I graduated from high school in Tennessee, I went to college in Missouri, following a path that I had set before we moved back to the south. It would have been very easy for me to have left the church. The decision to go was now mine and I didn’t have my mother yelling at me to get ready so I could drive her and my siblings to Sunday School. But I continue to go because there were something else driving me, not what my mother said or what my peers might have been doing (as if that were ever a reason).

I came to Christ, not because I was ordered to do so, but because I sought Him out. I sought Him out because I wanted to know how, in a world that sought to resolve its problems through hatred, exclusion, and violence, a God could exist. And I did what I hope that you do; I studied and explored. And I will admit that I have done more of this exploration and study in the past few years than I did when I was in confirmation class. I suppose that it goes with the territory when you decide to be a lay speaker in the United Methodist church.

I discovered that the word disciple does not automatically mean follower and that my role is not to force you to follow Christ. When I discovered the Cotton Patch Gospels, a wonderful translation of the New Testament from the original Greek by Dr. Clarence Jordan, I found another meaning. The Cotton Patch Gospels are not your typical translation of the Bible but one in which the places became towns in Georgia and the people were people of the South. Jesus’ parables became the stories of a Southern preacher.

From Clarence Jordan’s translations, I learned that to be a disciple was to be a student as much as a follower. To be a disciple is to show others what it means to follow Christ, by thought, word and deed.

And you cannot show others what it means to follow Christ if you are not willing to lead that life yourself. Clarence Jordan was raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. Like perhaps so many others, he began to question the nature of a church where one could sing songs that "Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" on Sunday yet which supported the discrimination and harassment of blacks and other non-whites outside the church walls.

Dr. Jordan would follow his faith and establish the Koinonia Farm in the late 1940s. Naturally, the establishment of an integrated farm in the Deep South did not go over well with other residents of the county, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their disagreement with Dr. Jordan was neither social nor civil. But it speaks to the nature of faith that the Klan has virtually died while the Koinonia Farm is still going strong today.

That’s not to say it was an easy going. To combat some of the early attacks on the farm Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some civil actions against the Klan. His brother, a rising star in the Georgia political scene (he would later become a Georgia state senator and justice on the State Supreme Court) refused, claiming it would harm his political aspirations. He said such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence (though I don’t see how).

Clarence Jordan then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert replied that he followed Jesus up to a point. Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross. Robert replied that he would go to the cross but (ah, another one of those "buts") that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but an admirer and he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert replied that if everyone who felt like he did were to do what Clarence suggested, there wouldn’t be much of a church. Clarence asked if Robert even had a church to which he could go. Later, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (First published in "The Gifts We Received")

This is the covenant that we have today. We no longer live in the law, as the people who first encountered Christ did in the Galilee. We live in the fulfillment of the law. We, wretched as we may be, have been saved by God’s grace.

I hope that each one of you knows that moment when you understood what it meant to be saved. For John Wesley, it was that moment of assurance that we have come to call the Aldersgate moment. For Paul, it was that encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus when his life was changed from Saul to Paul. For John Newton, it was on a storm-tossed boat in the Atlantic when God called him to account for his life and what he had done with it. Each of us has that moment; some have encountered it, others will. Perhaps I came to that understanding in the chapel at 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, during the spring of 1969.

I sat with Reverend Marvin Fortel that day and reviewed the communion ritual. There is a line in the old ritual that reminds us that we are not worthy of gathering the crumbs from God’s table. It is by God’s grace and God’s grace alone that we can even think to sit at His table. Naturally to a world-wise and immensely smart 18-year old college sophomore, this revelation was quite shocking. I was doing good things, I was working to end racial discrimination in this country, and I was fighting against the war in Viet Nam. How did this all not open the door to heaven for me?

What you do means nothing if you have not accepted Jesus Christ; nothing you do means a thing if you are without Christ. You can do all the good things (and I hope you don’t stop) but don’t expect the rewards of heaven. It doesn’t work that way.

And when you say that you are a Methodist, expect more to follow. To say that you are Methodist is to say that you know your life is not perfect and that you will now begin to work towards that perfection. Now you begin the work, the work that shows the world that you are a disciple of Christ.

Understand that you are never called to do something that you are incapable of doing. Understand that what you are called to do may be something that you don’t even know yet. We are not called to be martyrs for Christ; we are called to be witnesses (funny how the word martyr actually means witness). We are called to the Cross and then beyond.

And sooner or later, you have to respond to the call. If the people are hungry, what will you do to feed them? If the people are sick, what will you do to help them find healthcare? If the people are homeless, will you be there to build the houses? If the people are oppressed and imprisoned, will you find a way to free them? It is not that hard to give a thirsty person a drink; it is hard to say find the water yourself.

God reminds us that He gave His Only Son so that we would have this opportunity today. What are you willing to give in return?

Consider the Lilies of the Field and How They Grow

I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this weekend to participate in my 31st USBC Open tournament.  I have discussed this aspect of my life in several previous posts, including “Bowling and the Church”.

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures are Isaiah 49: 8 – 16, 1 Corinthians 4: 1 – 5, and Matthew 6: 24 – 34.

I find an interesting pairing of the Gospel reading for today with the fact that it is also the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a day of honor and remembrance of those who have fallen in battle.  Though created for the purpose of honoring the dead of the Union army during the Civil War, it has become or it is supposed to be a day to remember the dead from all the wars.  But, today, many people today probably have no idea of this day’s beginning and only see it as a marker for the beginning of summer and a time for major sales.  In fact, we have been bombarded with advertisements on television and radio and in print to buy things that we probably don’t need.  We are even getting subtle hints from the present administration, just as they put forth following September 11, 2001, to spend our economic stimulus check on things.  This is done with no apparent regard that our economy is sliding into recession and possibly depression and that single checks for $300 or $600 are not going to do much to change the direction of the economy.

And while we consider whether we are to serve God or wealth, we must also consider the lilies of the fields.  As it states in the Gospel reading, we are to consider the lilies of the field and how they are to grow.  Of course, what Jesus is talking about is that we should only be seeking that which is needed in order to live and survive; this is quite a contrast when we hear of CEOs earning sums of money in one year that exceed what many of their workers would earn in a lifetime.

And as we read this passage, if your church was like mine, we can see the lilies from last year’s Easter services begin to bloom (the traditional lily that we use is forced to bloom earlier in order to be ready for Easter; if you plant them, they bloom in late May or early June).  But, on this Memorial Day, we pause to consider the lilies that we are planting this year.

As the war in Iraq continues on and on, the number of young men and women killed climbs.  And so our military cemeteries have more and more white tombstone markers.  Consider the lilies and how they grow.  And what makes this climbing death toll so disturbing is that our young are being killed by guns and violence in our cities, often for the flimsiest of reasons.  We are killing our youth by war, guns, violence, and indifference (see “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “The Lost Generation”).

Have we not learned that what a society who seeks to gain through the accumulation of power and wealth actually gains?

Hear the words of Isaiah as he proclaims to the nation that all will be fed and clothed.  But also hear the word of the people who proclaim that God has forgotten them.  God has never forgotten us but we may have forgotten God.

When we pursue economic policies that drive down the less-fortunate and reward those who have with more, we are forgetting that the Bible’s focus has always been to remember the less and the oppressed.  When we pursue military policies that are more often than not seen as preserving our political and economic interests, then we are forgetting why Jesus brought the Good News to the people.  When we seek to judge people for their beliefs, their economic status, their gender, their race, or their lifestyle and we do so in the name of God, we forget that we are not called to judge but to be judged by God.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are called to be God’s servants through Christ, not his judge.

Let us also remember that John Wesley had no problems with anyone earning as much as they could.  But he warned us against doing so on the backs of the labor class and the less fortunate.  He also encouraged each of us to save as much as we could and to give as much as we could.

So on this day, let us consider how the lilies grow and work to make the field a field of life, not death and despair.  Let us consider how the lilies grow and, as Christ spoke to us, “work for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”