“To Try Our Souls”


This will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin for Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, June 23, 2019, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Paine, these are the times that try our souls.  We see a world becoming enveloped by a cloud of darkness created by ignorance, hatred, and violence.  And the church, long a beacon of light against the darkness is slowly becoming a part of the darkness.

Many individuals in the church, fortunately not all, are like the Gerasenes in the Gospel reading for today.  The Gerasenes sold out their faith for economic and political security.  Today’s Gerasenes have sold their faith for glory and power.  Echoing their Old Testament counterparts, they worship at the altar of Baal and say that those who do not do likewise are not welcome in the church.

Elijah was forced into an exile because he dared criticize the followers of Baal; many of us today are faced with the same prospect.  But as Elijah discovered, God is more likely to be found outside the walls of the church than the inside .  And to force us from this church means that we have more opportunities to spread the Word.

As Paul wrote, God’s Kingdom is made of many individuals from different walks of life.  The modern day Gerasenes, following the false God of Baal, will suffer the same fate as those who sought to challenge God in Elijah’s time.  Those who feel they are in exile will find, freed from the constraints of walls that constrain and constrict, more and greater opportunities to share the Gospel message.   ~~Tony Mitchell

The Flags We Do Not Fly On Memorial Day


A Meditation for 29 May 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). This is also the Memorial Day Sunday.

The meditation is based on 1 Kings 18: 20 – 21, (22 – 29), 30 – 39; Galatians 1: 1 – 12, and Luke 7: 1 – 10.

Monday, May 30th, is Memorial Day, the day that we are supposed to pause for a few moments and remember those who have died in service to the United States.

Memorial Day began as a remembrance of the Union dead of the War Between the States. Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) picked the day of May 30th as Memorial Day since it was believed that flowers would be in bloom all over the country. General Logan’s orders for that day stated,

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” (From http://www.appc1.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm)

It was not until after World War I that the meaning of the day was expanded to honor all those who died in American Wars. In 1968, the United States Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which moved Memorial Day from the traditional May 30th date to the last Monday of May, which this year is coincidentally the same date. This law took effect in 1971.

We have, in our family, two sets of flags. One set of flags is used on days such as Memorial Day. But we have another, far more important set of flags that were given to our family in grateful thanks for the service of Colonel Walter L. Mitchell, Sr., Major Robert J. Mitchell, Sergeant Walter L. Mitchell, Jr., Sergeant George Walker, and Sergeant Raymond Troutner. Our family was fortunate in that they all died during times of peace.

But some families are not so fortunate. Their loved ones, their fathers, brothers, sons, mothers, and daughters died during war, far away from home and sometimes for a cause long forgotten. They came home with little fanfare and late at night, with the hopes of those who sent them to die that no one would notice.

Now, this will sound just a bit sarcastic but those who have died seem to have been better treated than those who were injured or wounded. It seems that those who are wounded and injured are more often than not forgotten, as the tragedies of the Veterans Administration have shown.

This need not be a somber day but it should be a day of reflection and remembrance, for we must honor those who died to insure our freedom and the liberties that we have. But I am afraid that this is becoming a day of celebration of war, not a remembrance of war and what war does. We glorify that which we should abhor and we ignore the consequences of our actions.

I am reminded that Robert E. Lee once wrote to his wife,

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

President Dwight Eisenhower said,

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

We see Memorial Day as a day of racing, parades, and the unofficial beginning of summer. For many students, Memorial Day is the marker that says school is almost over. It is hardly what we could call a day of memory and remembrance.

It is a day that says the gods of Baal, the gods of war and greed, are more important. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, will speak in platitudes and cliches that glorify war and suggest that war is and will always be the answer to the problems of the world.

And these words will often be spoken by politicians and would-be politicians who have never served a day in the military, who are quite willing to send our youth, our future off to war but who have no concept of what war is or what it can do. And when the war ends (assuming that it ends), they do nothing to repair the damages and destruction caused by war. And then they wonder why war never ends.

And when politicians and would-be politicians raise up veterans, it is often for their own political and financial gain, not for the veterans.

In much the way Dante envisioned Sheol as a series of levels, I am sure that there is a special level for those who profit from war and the death and injuries of those they sent off to fight for them.

I also think there is a special place for those who proclaim to be Christian but who treat the words of Christ as words to be ignored. Personally, if one wants to declare war as the solution to the problem, that’s somewhat fine for me. But don’t say you are a Christian because nothing you say or do even remotely models the life of Christ.

In fact, when your focus is on these other gods and not Christ, you miss the point. But the Roman captain in Capernaum understood the difference.

Here was an officer in the Roman army, perhaps the greatest single military power in the history of the world, and he understood that none of that power, none of that military might was any good when he came to healing his servant. But he did understand that Jesus had the ability and power to do just that.

We are very much like the people of Israel when Elijah was the prophet and God’s spokesperson. The nation had begun following the gods of Baal and Elijah challenged the people to decide what they were going to do. Elijah arranged a demonstration to illustrate the inability of the gods of Baal when compared to the the true power of God. And when it was all done, the gods of Baal failed terribly in this very simple demonstration, even with the situation stacked in their favor.

I do not know what was going on in Galatia but it was clear from what Paul was writing that someone was offering an alternative view of the message that Paul presented. And it was also clear from what Paul wrote that this alternative message was clearly in opposition to the original message. Is not the message of some many so-called “Christians” the same version of that alternative message?

Where are we today? Do we accept the true Gospel, in which we help others, in which we care for others, and remove the causes of war, violence, and hatred? Or do we follow the false gospel of those who pronounce that we are to hate the outsiders and those who are different, who pronounce the power of war over the power of love, all while ignoring or transforming the words of Christ and the prophets of God?

There will be wars that we must fight. World War II was, unfortunately because of the anger and hatred that ended World War I, inevitable. But had justice over anger prevailed at the Versailles Conference in April, 1919, World War II may have been avoided. And many of the problems that have plagued our society since then would, perhaps could have been worked out in other ways.

Robert E. Lee also said,

“The war . . . was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.”

We also need to remember the words of George Washington,

My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.”

President John Kennedy pointed out,

“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”

Two years earlier, he said,

“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind. War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

On this Memorial Day, when we pause to remember those whose service and sacrifice allow us to live free, we also need to remember the words of Elijah as he demonstrated the false nature of the gods of Baal, we need to remember the words of Paul who showed the power of Christ, and the single Roman Captain who understood that the the power of war can never be greater than the power of true Christian love.

We are challenged this day to go out into the world, not to destroy the world, but to build the world so all people will live free.

“What Are You Afraid Of?”


Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (6 June 2010). The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

——————————————————————————————–

Stephen Stills wrote a song a few years back called “For What It’s Worth”. Many people thought that this song was a commentary on the shootings at Kent State (May 4, 1970) or perhaps as anti-Viet Nam war song. But despite the appropriateness of the lyrics for those two incidents, it was really written as a commentary for something that happened in Los Angeles while Stills was recording an album with Graham Nash and David Crosby. ("Wisdom, Power, and the Way of Life")

But I suppose that what make any particular piece of music good is its timelessness and appropriateness for other situations. And so the words of the song, written some 45 years ago, are still highly appropriate today.

The thoughts and expressions of my generation, growing up in the 60s, seem to still echo through today’s news. Yet, while the war in Viet Nam may be over, we are still engaged in another set of wars. And they are wars that have gone on far longer than Viet Nam and which threaten to continue for an unforeseeable length of time. There may be those who would proclaim that the battle for civil rights has been won but it still seems as if the rights of any one individual are still dependent on where one was born and the social, economic, and educational status in which one is raised. Despite the rhetoric of many, the American Dream is more of a nightmare than a reality.

And as I look around my own area and as I read what is happening in other areas of this country, I sense that this country is sinking slowing into a dark sea of fear and paranoia. It is as if we are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, of thinking that today is as good as it is going to get.

Some might say that we have been conditioned to accept that last idea. We are supposed to be quite content with our lot in life, even when it is not the best. And anything that might disturb this status quo makes us very fearful and very afraid.

I am not ready to completely accept that notion if for no other reason that I have seen too many individuals use that idea to justify a society where success is pre-ordained by birth and location of birth. It also speaks of a contradiction where we say we can express our own thoughts yet are limited in what we can say and do. We speak of being able to do whatever we want yet are forced to accept what we have now. From what I trust is a theological viewpoint, it is almost Calvinist in scope. It doesn’t matter what we think we can do, we are doomed to accept the notion of what we have as the very essence of our soul and being.

It boggles my mind that we should even make this argument as runs counter to free will and political freedom. Yet, as I look around this world and see the protests that are taking place and the rhetoric being espoused, I see that contradiction. I see people arguing for the status quo while being oppressed by the status quo. Somehow, they have accepted the notion that their lot in life will be better only when it remains the same. And anything that is done to disturb that situation, to offer a better alternative or let others share is to be feared.

Look around and tell me if that is not what is happening in this country today. We seek individuals who will quickly bring us out of the mire of our own confusion and ignorance; we gladly listen to individuals who offer solutions that are contrary to what is transpiring. We hear individuals call for smaller government and less interference from the federal government in local businesses but then turn around and demand that the federal government get involved. We hear individuals call for no federal health care programs but don’t want anyone to touch Medicare.

The fear that is expressed today is much the same fear that the people two thousand years ago expressed. It is the same fear expressed by the people when Jesus healed the individual in today’s Gospel reading. The people were not prepared for what Jesus would offer them. Yes, they wanted a Messiah but they wanted a political and military Messiah, one who would offer a traditional response to the political and military rule of Rome.

The people then and now were thirsty but all they are being offered is salt water. And when you drink salt water to quench your thirst, all you get is more thirst.

I also think that there is a reluctance to seek something new, a reluctance to go beyond the moment. The best counter to fear is knowledge and it is too bad that much of the protests today are done without knowledge. If the people understood what they are saying, then there might be some hope for true change in this country.

The widow in the Old Testament reading was afraid to take on the task that Elijah asked her to do, because it was an illogical request. But it was an illogical request because it was seen in terms of the world in which she lived, not in the world that God had and has to offer. The church today sees the world in the same way that the widow does and not in terms of what God asks of us. The church’s problems, like those of the world around it, are created because we refuse to see the world in a different light, because we refuse to accept an alternative.

I don’t know why it is but it always seems that the easiest response is one made out of fear and ignorance. Maybe it takes too much effort to stop and see what is transpiring. Sometimes fear is the proper response but we still have to stop and see what is happening.

As John Kennedy said, “our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” (Speech at American University, 10 June 1963) Yet, it seems so often that we are unwilling to do that. The problems of this world call for solutions not found by traditional methods. There is also no moral voice speaking out against the fear that seeks to encompass this world. It was the church that spoke out against the Viet Nam war; it was the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Yet, the church today is remarkably silent when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The church, while proclaiming that we are all God’s children, seems to think that this proclamation is only for a few selected souls. And the church leaders of today are the ones who are making the selection, not God.

The image of the church today is one that mankind has made; it is an image of man, not Christ. But then, I doubt very seriously that many people can even provide the beginnings of an image of Christ because we have very carefully crafted that image in terms of what we want. Though many people are trying to change the nature of the church in what it says and what it does, the image of the church today is still one of a selfish, self-righteous group interested in only their own self preservation. The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago because we have forced it into a box of our design; we have failed to respond to what God wants us to do. Paul points out to the Galatians that the Gospel was not his but that is what we have made it. We have twisted it and modified it so much that we don’t even recognize it.

So perhaps it is time that we stop and look around at where we are and what we are doing. Instead of countering fear with fear, let us counter it with knowledge. Instead of countering violence with violence, let us remove the need for violence. Ignorance, hatred, fear and violence grow out of the very issues that Jesus sought to overcome in His Gospel message – hunger, sickness, poverty, and oppression. If you remove the factors that cause those things, what would happen? The problem is that we don’t often ask that question and perhaps it is time that we begin to do just that?

Why can’t we ask the question about what it is that the church is supposed to be doing in this time and place? Are we afraid of the answer we might receive? Are we afraid, like so many before, who heard the answer to “follow me” but were reluctant and afraid to do so?

We call ourselves Christian so perhaps now is the time to live as such. We call ourselves Methodist so let us begin once again to wear what was intended as an insult as a badge of honor. Or are we to afraid of what others might say?

Is it that we live our lives as Christians on Sunday morning only? If we live our lives as Christians 24/7, then we have nothing to fear. But are our lives lived in that manner? Those who wear the cloak of Christian righteousness on Sunday morning and carefully take it off and fold it up and put it in the pew that has belonged to their family for generation after generation when they leave church on Sunday should be afraid. For they will find that the clothes they wear the rest of the week cannot protect them.

Those who proclaim they have no belief in God or say there is no reason to believe in God have everything to be afraid of. For there will come a time when they will seek help and have nowhere to turn. (But the church today cannot offer the help because it doesn’t understand how to deal with this issue and, for that, the church needs to be afraid.)

But, amidst all of this, this fear, this uncertainty, this paranoia, comes a small voice. It began with the prophets on the plains of Israel, it was spoken by the voice of the Baptizer calling out in the wilderness, and it was spoken by Christ Himself. It was and is the call to repent, to begin anew.

But we don’t like to hear this call; we don’t like the very notion of repentance. We think of repentance as a momentary act, one that we can make anytime we want and done over and over. But we are afraid because, deep down inside, we know that repentance requires that we give up all that we have, to cast aside our old ways and begin a new life, a life in Christ. We like our old ways, even if we do not understand the trouble and danger that such a life encompasses. We don’t want to give up our old ways.

But the promise of tomorrow cannot be met unless we do just that, give up our olds ways and begin a new life. We cannot make the journey to tomorrow by moving to the past or trying to stay in the present. When Jesus began His ministry, He knew where it would end. His understanding of what He would ask the people to do would cause some to react in fear, paranoia, and hatred. He knew that He would be challenging the status quo and that He would offer a life with a different outcome.

We know what that outcome is; we know what we are being asked to do. Perhaps that is why we are afraid; we know the outcome. We see the Cross and we see Christ’s death on the Cross and we see ourselves hanging there. We see that image as the end of the journey and we are afraid.

But if we understand that Christ’s death on the Cross was necessary so that we could begin a new journey, we wouldn’t be afraid

So, our challenge today is to hear the call to repent and begin anew. You may choose to ignore this call because you are afraid. And the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning and the problems of the world will seem bigger and harder than ever before and you will have reason to be afraid. You will be afraid because you have no hope.

Or you can commit your life to Christ. It will not make the problems go away; it will not make the problems smaller or easier to solve. But it will take away that fear, that uncertainty that prevents you from solving the problems.

This is an unknown and uncharted path but you walk with Christ and many others so you need not be afraid. For in Christ comes the hope of tomorrow.

“Where Are Your Manners?”


This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

————————————————————————

Believe it or not, the commentary this past week that accompanied the ceremonies and trappings of President Regan’s funeral suggested that there is a word found in most dictionaries yet absent from use in today’s society. That word is civility.

Whether we disagreed with President Regan’s political philosophy or not, it seemed that most politicians back then agreed to disagree but not hate each other while he was president. Today, in politics and just plain society, it seems that is no longer the case. We may disagree with someone but the disagreement has gone beyond simple disagreement and is fast becoming hatred for those opposed to contrary views.

Even in our own daily lives, we disagree to the point of utter contempt for the other person. If you do not move fast enough when the light changes from red to green, the person behind you is apt to honk their horn. If you are waiting to make a left-hand turn on a busy two-lane road, the person behind you is apt to pass on the right (a maneuver that I was taught in drivers’ education to be illegal). Despite efforts to the contrary, people use their cell phones inappropriately and in the wrong places. It has gotten to the point where ministers have to remind the congregation to turn off the ringers during funerals and weddings.

Manners and etiquette, the very essence of civility, have disappeared from the fabric of our society. We have forgotten what we were taught as children about manners and respect. But we should also remember that manners, etiquette, respect, and civility is not just items to be learned; they are a part of one’s life. Things learned but not used are often forgotten.

Jesus comes to the house of Simon the Pharisee. Simon has invited him there, perhaps in hopes of gaining some insight into the new theology that Jesus is teaching. Now, in typical fashion for the day, Jesus and his disciples were walking and the roads of Galilee were very dusty.

The basic rule of hospitality then was that the host offers water and a towel to any visitors so that they may wash the dust off their feet. For whatever reason, Simon ignores this very basic tenet of hospitality. But an uninvited guest, a woman no less, shows Jesus the hospitality that the real host does not.

Now this particular story is told in all four of the Gospels. This story is the source of the legend that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Luke does not name the woman, though at the conclusion of the reading he does introduce Mary Magdalene to us. It is noted that the woman in this story is described as a woman of the city. This implies that she was a prostitute. But there is no way that you should connect the unnamed woman in this story with the character of Mary Magdalene later introduced. To say otherwise is to engage in unwarranted and unnecessary gossip, an act not reflective of one’s manners.

The issues of good hospitality, manners, etiquette, and perhaps just common sense are the essence of this story, but not in the way one might expect. By implication, Simon, a Pharisee, should be honest and good and a respectable image of religiosity. He should, by training and social position, be the one to show the good social graces. The unnamed woman in the story is first and foremost a woman. That means that she should not even be there. In this society, women and children were excluded from the social gatherings of the day. Any women present would have been maids, shuttling quickly in and out with the various courses for the dinner. And because this particular woman is identified as a woman of the city, the implication is that her character is not the best in the world. If, by either implication or fact, she was in fact a prostitute, then she may very well have known many of the men who were present at that dinner. But this is first of all random speculation on my part; but if it were true, she may have known one or two of the men present and they certainly would not have wanted her there.

This woman is forward, uninvited, outrageous in her behavior and breaking every known rule of social behavior for men and women in that time and place. But it is also clear that everyone there, including Jesus and even her, recognize that she is a sinner.

But against that backdrop, the person who shows the appropriate hospitality to Jesus is this woman. Simon apparently did not welcome Jesus into his home the way a true host would have. And one has to wonder why not? Could it be that Simon saw Jesus, not as the Messiah but rather as just an interesting person?

Because Simon is identified as a Pharisee, we know that he is bright, curious, and interested in religious ideas. He has invited this itinerant and untrained rabbi to dinner, perhaps to hear Jesus’ views on any number of topics and to exchange ideas.

But Simon does not need Jesus; he has no need for a Savior or a Messiah. Secure in his own beliefs and his station in life, he sees Jesus only as a means of adding to his own life, his own spiritual and secular interests. He can now brag to his friends that Jesus has been a guest in his home. It is interesting to note that even today there are those in our society, our churches and seminaries who see Jesus as an interesting person to know. For these people, Jesus is someone to brag about but not someone who is truly a part of their daily life.

But the woman in this story is not one of those people. She needs Jesus not to round out her personal spirituality as Simon did but rather so she can be a whole person, so that she can be the human being that she is. So she focuses everything on Jesus and nothing on herself. Her act of washing Jesus’ feet becomes an act of cleansing her soul. ("Living the Word" by Michael Lindvall, The Christian Century, 1 June 2004.)

We have to ask ourselves this morning where Jesus is in our lives. Is He part of our life or is He just there where we can bring Him out when we need Him? Consider the reading from the Old Testament for today.

Ahab is king but he is still obligated to follow the law. He cannot simply take Naboth’s land. But his wife, Jezebel, conspires through malicious gossip, to have Naboth killed. And with Naboth dead, Ahab can take the land that he wanted in the first place.

But even if Ahab was not unconcerned or unaware of how it took place, the crimes that took place were part of his conscience. We are told that Ahab has lost all sense of God’s law, the basic teaching of which is love for God and for one’s neighbor. Ahab’s worship of idolatry (mentioned earlier in 1 Kings 18: 18) shows that he has no love for God; the story today shows that he has no love for his neighbor. Because he never was in a genuine relationship with God, he ultimately loses all that he sought and gained.

It is not a matter of manners that should dictate how we treat others. For how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat God. Paul writes that the only thing that will save us is our faith, not our works or adherence to the law.

Ahab gave up the law and paid the price. Those who despise God’s mercies, who only see God in a peripheral manner, will do likewise. Those whose obedience to the law blinds them to the plight of others will find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to salvation. Paul points out that those who know the law know that no person can be declared righteous or be justified in their actions simply by obedience to the Law of Moses. What knowledge of the Law does or rather should do is convince individuals of their own personal spiritual deadness in sin outside faith in Christ.

We celebrate communion today because it is that one symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us that shows we are no longer dead to sin in this world. Through communion, Christ lives on in us. And it is that presence which should be reflected in our lives today.

We need to be reminded that we are not the hosts at this table today; we are the ones who have been invited. And the invitation is through God’s grace, not through our social stature, or our attainment of social graces. We are reminded that by our sins, we are not even worthy of eating the crumbs that fall to the ground.

Yet we live in a society and at a time when those invited to Christ’s table try to say who should come to the table. Today’s Pharisees say that because someone is a sinner, they cannot come to this table.

The room where Jesus had dinner with Simon was closed to the woman in the story. But because she was so moved by her love for Christ and her desire for repentance, she found a way to enter the room and express her thoughts. Jesus responded in kind, with love and compassion, saying, "Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you, go in peace."

In a world where manners are a lost part of society, we have to ask ourselves who we are today? Shall we be like Simon, more interested in Christ as an ornament in our live but not willing to put Him in our life. Shall we treat others with contempt simply because of something they said or did? Or shall we come to this table, with an open heart and mind, professing our sins and asking for God’s grace and forgiveness?

We are reminded that we come to this table at the invitation of Christ, not by our own volition. We have no right to come to this table except that Christ has invited us. We come as sinners but we leave as forgiven people, with Christ in our hearts. We leave as new persons, showing the presence of Christ in our lives and how we treat others.


“Traditions”


This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 14 June 1998, at the Jenkins United Methodist Church (Jenkins, KY) and the Whitesburg United Methodist Church (Whitesburg, KY).  The Scriptures that I used for this Sunday were Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.  The Epistle reading and the Gospel reading are from the lectionary but I am not entirely certain why I used the reading from Genesis as the Old Testament reading.  I think, in retrospect, that I used A Guide to Prayer (Job and Shawchuck) in preparing for this Sunday and misread the lectionary choices for this Sunday.

Also, at the time, the Whitesburg church was my home church and I was filling for the pastor while he was at Annual Conference.

—————————————————

When I start working on a sermon for a given date, the first thing I do is to look in the lectionary for the scripture readings for that particular Sunday. As I read these scriptures, one each from the Old Testament, the Gospel, and the Epistle, I try to think of a title for the sermon which best explains my understanding of the scriptures. That is why this sermon was initially titled “The Price of Our Dues.”

But as things developed during the past week and as I read and studied the scriptures I found that a better title and a better approach was “Traditions”. It seems to me that the new catch phrase for politics in the 1990’s is “traditional family values”. This has an interesting ring to me, at least, when I consider some of the traditions that my family has.

We all have traditions, things that have been part of our lives but for which the basis is long ago forgotten. It is also a part of the family tradition to note my grandfather ran away from home when he was young, lied about his age, and joined the Merchant Marines. After a period of time, he then joined the United States Army using this falsified data.

Now, there are no written records other that a few lines in his diary which can confirm this story. That he was in the Merchant Marine is undoubtedly true, based on what he later wrote. But his real age (for the Army records disagree with what he wrote) and any other items about his family background are lost because my grandfather never had a birth certificate.

That is why we have to be careful about traditions. Sometimes the reasons for them are lost and we only do them because what we have always done. In my family, we traditionally had steak on Saturdays and chicken on Sundays. Don’t ask me why, that was they way it was.

The idea of tradition always played a strong part in Jesus’ ministry. But it was not the upholding of tradition, but rather the reversal of tradition that was the focus.

In the Israelite society of Jesus’ day, the only way to salvation was through adherence to the law. Yet, the reasons for the laws and traditions often times got lost in the maze of time and the result was that the many of the laws were so intrinsic, so complex, and often contradictory as to make adherence impossible or at least impractical. People sought Jesus because they could see that His offer of salvation through the grace of God was a much better and clearer alternative to what tradition had to offer. Jesus also forgave individuals of their sins, something never done before and something never thought possible.

But now people were seeking out Jesus. Remember the women in the crowd who sought only to touch Jesus’ cloak (Mark 5: 25 – 34):

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “?”If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5: 25 – 34)

Also remember the paralytic lowered into the room where Jesus was by his friends who took the roof off the building in order to accomplish the task.

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard the he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door , and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bring to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowed, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and , after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2: 1 – 5)

People sought out Jesus because they knew that He did offer an alternative to the life that society was forcing them to accept. It may have been out of curiosity or it may have been an attempt to entrap him that Simon the Pharisee asked Jesus to come to his house for dinner, as we read in today’s Gospel reading.

Now, at a traditional dinner, it was the host’s responsibility to provide water so that the guests could wash their feet. It is clear from Jesus’ comments

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

that Simon didn’t do this nor had he offered the traditional greeting kiss or perfume usually offered to the honored guest.

And the presence of this woman was also very much against tradition. Normally, the only women present at such a dinner would have been the servants and this woman, with her social status, would have never been allowed inside the room. Yet she was there, unveiled and with her hair down, both non-traditional, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears.

As he had done before, Jesus forgave this woman of her sins, not because she was washing his feet but because her faith was strong enough to overcome the resistance of society. Needless to say, the other guests, with their view of life tied to the traditional ways, were shocked.

But why should they be shocked? After all, in an ironic twist, most of those people present probably were aware of what had happened between Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac.

The Old Testament reading for today, Genesis 25: 19 – 34, tells the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac. Esau grew up and became a skillful hunter but one day, after an apparently unsuccessful hunting trip, he came home starving.

He was so hungry that he begged his brother Jacob for something to eat. In reply, Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright. In traditional society, the birthright included the inheritance rights for the first-born. And in Esau’s case, such inheritance included the covenant promises of a mighty nation that Isaac, his father, had inherited from his father Abraham. Some would say that Jacob was a schemer and a trickster to but it was by God’s choice that he, Jacob, came to own the birthright of the Israelite nation. Had God chosen to follow tradition, then it would have been Esau that would have been the father of the Israelite nation but that was not to be the case and, and in the end, Esau was left with nothing.

God’s plan for us is not based on tradition. Nor is it so rigid a plan that it can never offer any hope. If God’s will as strict as the law, then there would be no need for salvation because, once we have broken the law, we would have died in sin. As Paul wrote As he wrote in Galatians 2: 21, “I do not set aside the graced of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2: 21)

That is why God sent Jesus for us. Because God wanted to show everyone that it wasn’t tradition that promised salvation but God’s grace. Time and time again, Paul writes that is by our faith in Jesus that we are saved, not by our following the laws and traditions. For us today, the path to salvation is through Christ. Yes, we need to live a godly life; yes, we need to follow the law, both spiritual and man-made. But until such time as we accept Christ as our own personal savior, nothing is accomplished.

What saves us is not our adherence to a rigid code of laws or traditions whose origins are lost in time; it is our faith in Christ. The woman in the Gospel reading today was forgiven, the woman in the crowd and the paralyzed man were all healed not because of anything they did but because of their faith. The tears the woman shed as she washed Jesus’ feet that day were tears of joy, of knowing that she was forgiven.

For us, it is the same. As we go through life, facing each uncertain day, remember the third verse of “Amazing Grace” , “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

In 1 John 4, John writes of discerning from whom life’s instructions come; to make sure that what you hear comes from God and not some where else. It is tempting in life to see the path to take as a series of laws and traditions but in trying to stay on that path we often stumble. Yet, when we accept Christ as our Savior, when we understand that it is our faith in Christ that our sins are forgiven, the path becomes an easy one and a more fruitful one.



Finding the Truth


I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (it appears that I used the lectionary readings for the week of May 29th to June 4th for this message instead of the readings for June 5th to June 11th).
————————————————————-
There is a scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” that has become almost ingrained in our minds. A Navy lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, is questioning a Marine Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson.

Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can’t handle the truth! (“A Few Good Men”, written by Aaron Sorkin – dialogue from http://www.whysanity.net/monos/fewgood.html)

We are a nation that embodies this scene in our search for the truth and our response to the truth. We are a nation that seeks the truth, yet while we desperately seek the truth, we are equally afraid of its consequences. While we may know the truth, we do not seem capable of handling it.

But what is the truth? Jesus said, “seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 32) But how do we find the truth?

Our desire to seek the truth and inability to find it has left many people questioning what the truth is. They have become known as “seekers” and many churches have responded by creating “seeker-sensitive” services. The only problem with such services is that they are often devoid of any sign of the presence of the Cross. The cross and other religious trappings are often removed from the view of the congregation in these services because such signs are very disturbing to seekers and will often scare them away.

Even the message of the church has changed. Instead of challenging people to fulfill the mission of Christ, it has been softened and modified into what is derisively called “gospel-light.” It is a message that sounds great but demands little and, in the end, carries little meaning.

It is a message that allows people to justify what they are doing in their search for riches, glory, and self-gratification. The bearers of this message proclaim that the riches of God’s Kingdom belong to the listener if they only ask God for them. It is theirs for the asking because they are righteous and God-fearing. It is a message that allows one to blame others for the ills of society while claiming to be true disciples of Christ.

To readily accept this message, however, requires that we abandon any pretense of reason or logic. This message tells us that the truth that we seek in our attempts to make sense of the world in which we live can only be found if we accept the Bible as absolutely correct. The solution to our search is uncritical obedience and mindless acceptance of the authority of those who claim to speak for God. It is an approach that requires that we abandon critical thinking skills.

But our human needs for absolute certainty cannot be satisfied with this approach nor should they. It would be sinful for us not to want to think, to reason, and to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. But many people do just that because they do not have the faith to trust in the Lord.

And in doing so, the message first proclaimed by Jesus, a message of love for each other, has transformed into a message of fear, hatred, exclusion, greed, and self-interest. We have transformed a God that loved us so much that He willingly sent His Son to die on the Cross for our sins so that we could live in freedom from sin and death into a god who destroys and kills those who displease him. Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we have abandoned the God who brought us out of slavery for the god of Baal and its message of self-interest and materialism.

Those who preach this message seek to create a society much like that of Israel of the Old Testament, a society of religious laws. But that society and its laws was a society without hope and one based on fear. The fear came because you didn’t know if you were properly obeying the law and fear of the punishment that you would incur from the authorities.

We may not be a religious and theocratic society but we are clearly a society that lives in fear. We have clearly forgotten that Franklin Roosevelt once calmed this nation by proclaiming that the greatest enemy of mankind was fear. We believe that the answer to fear is power and the more power that we have, the easier it will be to counter and conquer fear.

Yet, Jesus conquered our greatest fear, the fear of death, with a single quiet word. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus touches the young man and commands him to rise. (Luke 7: 11 – 17). Luke writes that the people who saw this were amazed by the power that Jesus had over death and proclaimed Him the next great prophet. They did so because they did not yet understand the differences between prophets such as Elijah and Jesus. This misunderstanding would last through the Gospel, confusing not only the disciples but the people who followed Him.

And one can only imagine what the authorities, both political and religious, were thinking following this demonstration of God’s power. After all, in touching the dead young man, Jesus violated one of the basic religious laws and should have been considered “unclean.” In the eyes of authorities, Jesus’ failure to remedy this violation of religious law was more important than the result of the violation. Time and time again, Jesus would follow the spirit of the law and encounter resistance from the authorities who proclaimed that the law was more important. Time and time again, Jesus’ actions in following the spirit of the law to take care of people first would illustrate the truth and expose the hypocrisy of the leaders.

The Old Testament reading for today was written some 3000 years ago but it could have been written as if it were today. The worshippers of Baal then would have felt right at home with the materialism of today’s society. And the widows of that time would have understood the despair felt by many of today’s society who do not have enough to eat or a place to stay each day.

Richard J. Foster wrote that

People need the truth. It does them no good to remain ignorant. They need the freedom that comes through the grace of simplicity. And if we are to bring the whole counsel of God, we must give attention to these issues that enslave people so savagely. Martin Luther is reported to have said “If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” Given the contemporary milieu, several dimensions of simplicity seem to me to need careful attention in the teaching ministry of the church.

We must boldly teach the essential connection between the inner and outer aspects of simplicity. We can no longer allow people to engage in pious exercises that are divorced from the hard social realities of life. Nor can we tolerate a radical social witness that is devoid of inward spiritual vitality. Our preaching and teaching needs to mold these elements in unity. If our teaching is centered in the biblical text, we will find literally hundreds of examples — from Abraham to St. John, from the wisdom literature to the apocalyptic writings. (From Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J. Foster)

The focus of the Bible has always been on the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. It has been pointed out on a number of occasions that if you removed every reference to the poor in the Bible, it would fall apart. Yet we somehow think that the Bible justifies a case for privilege, hierarchy and divine wrath.

We have forgotten that the people of Israel were commanded to leave portions of the fields untouched so that those without would be able to have food to eat. The essence of the Book of Ruth focuses on that premise and the meeting of Ruth and Boaz and the beginning of the family tree that would lead to David and ultimately to Jesus. Yet, in the time of our Old Testament reading, widows had become the outcast of society. Israel had forgotten its own laws for the care of the unfortunate.

The story of the widow and Elijah is a reminder of what the true message of the Gospel is. It is a reminder of what it means to have accepted Christ in our hearts. It is a reminder of what we are to do if we say that we are Christian.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 1: 11 – 24), begins by pointing out how he once strictly adhered to the law. But he also showed how he was called to be God’s apostle and how it was through God’s grace that he was allowed to continue.

It was by God’s grace that the widow’s jars of oil and flour were kept constantly full. It is also interesting to note that the widow was not an Israelite and yet was a recipient of God’s grace.

Paul also tells us that the word he preaches came from God, not from men. If the message were to have come from men, then he would have had to go to Jerusalem so that others could teach him what God’s message really meant.

But Paul indicated that he didn’t have to do that because God had given him the ability to understand the message. How different it is today when there are those who proclaim that only they can understand the message of God and we are to accept their understanding without question. We are able to understand God’s message, Paul notes, if we have accepted the Holy Spirit. It was the same Holy Spirit that imparted knowledge to those who gathered that Sunday at Pentecost and proclaimed the message of the Gospel.

We are a nation that seeks the truth. While there are those who proclaim that they are the sole bearers of the truth we, like the widow in the Old Testament reading today, find that the truth of God’s message comes from our faith in God and our trust in God. With our faith in God, we know that fear need not and cannot control our lives. All we need to do is look at the Cross to know the truth in that.

Through God’s grace and love, we have been saved. Through the Holy Spirit, we have found the truth. And now we are able to go out into the world proclaiming God’s message through Christ so that others may find the truth.