“I Dreamed of a Church: Christ’s Representative”


This will be the “back page” for the 19 March 2017, 3rd Sunday of Lent (A), bulletin at Fishkill UMC.  The reading for this Sunday comes from Matthew 25.  I have told this story before but it speaks to the point of our participation in someone else’s baptism.

I have been fortunate to have been directly involved in the baptism of several individuals, both as a pastoral assistant and as a member of the family.  Perhaps the greatest joy was when I presented Casey, my granddaughter, and George, my grandson, to the congregation on the day of their baptisms.

But the story that strikes a chord with me is not my story but rather that of a current United Methodist pastor.  At the time of this story, this pastor-to-be was a bouncer in a local bar (which seems to be the career path of choice these days).  He was present at the baptism as the result of a direct command from his sister.  So, he came to church that Sunday morning after a rather long night at his regular job.  At the end of the service, one of the “saints” of the church saw that he was desperately searching for a cup of coffee and directed him to the church’s Fellowship Hall.

A few weeks later he found the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket.  With the remembrance that someone had shown him some kindness, he returned to that church on his own accord.  Shortly afterwards, he made the decision to accept Christ as his Savior and he was baptized.

As it turns out, there was more to this than simply accepting the call to follow Christ.  It began a journey that has lead to becoming a minister in the United Methodist Church.

We all take part in the baptism of an individual.  In our participation, we welcome friends and strangers.  And while we never know how this will all turn out, we need to understand that one time someone offered a cup of coffee to a stranger and a life was changed.                                                – Tony Mitchell

Repeat Or Repent


A Meditation for 28 February 2016, the 3rd in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Isaiah 55: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9

One of the shows that is on my “favorite” list is “Leverage”, probably because of its contrarian viewpoint. In one of the early episodes, the Leverage team learned that Nate Ford, their leader, had been in seminary (“The Miracle Job”). In this episode, the villain is trying to foreclose on a Catholic church in Los Angeles (we will ignore the probability that the writers of this episode didn’t really understand the nature of Roman Catholic real estate proceedings). In what he assumes will be the last Mass held at the church, the priest (a friend of Nate’s) uses the Gospel reading for today as the basis for his homily.

Now, I have not heard that many homilies in my day so I am always surprised when this priest seems to be, as a former choir director of mine would say, is a bit more Pentecostal than usual. The priest tells the congregation that the message of the Gospel is that they must repent or perish.

I don’t think I have ever thought of that passage in those terms. For me, the central part of the message is the time-frame. In my own experiences, for any effective change to take place, you have to have a long-term plan and three years is not really that long. I am sure that someone will tell me that the three years in the Gospel story is related to the three years of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the traditional three years that a Methodist pastor serves a congregation comes from those two ideas.

Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians in today’s New Testament reading reminds us that when we reflect on our past, it is very hard to move forward or even envision the future.

Balance this with the idea that Lent is the season of repentance and to repent is to change your life, totally and completely. For too many people, repentance, especially during Lent, simply means to ask forgiveness for whatever it is that they have done, try to avoid doing it for forty days, and then, after Lent is over, returning to that prior behavior.

Everything that is taking place today, in our society and throughout the world, seems to say that we have forgotten the lessons of the past and all that happened then. Or it is with the idea that yesterday was better than today and tomorrow can never be as good as today is.

In 1964, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke to the students, faculty, and guests at an assembly at the California Institute of Technology about the role of science and technology in shaping the future. In what might be considered a rather prophetic statement, he said,

To say that the future will be different from the present is, to scientists, hopelessly self-evident.· I observe regretfully that in politics, however it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism, or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed. It hardly seems necessary to point out in California – of all States — that change, although it involves risks, is the law of life.”

Nevertheless, there are those, frustrated by a difficult future, who grab out for the security of the non-existent past. Frustrated by change they condemn the wisdom, the motives, and even the patriotism of those who seek to contend with the realities of the future. (“The Opening To The Future”)

This is something I wrote about last week (“The Paradox Of Vision”). Some churches feel that the key to the future lies in repeating what was done in the past. Yet, the conditions that made the past successful are not always conditions that will work in the present and what might work today might not necessarily work tomorrow. If one does not understand the operating conditions, failure is almost certain.

Ultimately, it comes down to this, if you choose not to repent, to cast aside the past and begin anew, then you will surely repeat the past. And if it did not work then, it most certainly will not work today. And that means that there probably will not be a tomorrow.

On the other hand, if you repent and renounce that which ties you to the past and keeps you from moving forward, then you will have a future. It will be a future in which joy and hope abound beyond description; it will be a future that most definitely obtains the goals of the Gospel, to tell the Good News and bring relief to the downtrodden, good health to the sick, shelter for the homeless, and justice for the oppressed.

The choice is yours, repent and move forward or repeat the past and die in the backwaters of history.

“Growing the Faith”


Sunday was one of those times when I would have liked to be in the pulpit somewhere. But if you look, you would see that I have only been in the pulpit once in the past 8 years on this liturgical date. And that is to be expected since this is a time of year when most pastors prefer to be in the pulpit. (This was edited to take out a reference to a summary page that I deleted.)

Now, as it happens, I will be filling in for a pastor next Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013) at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY. Service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. On Saturday, I will provide the reading and message at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. We open the doors at 8 on Saturdays and you are invited to be a part of this new community growing in Christ and faith.

The message for next Sunday is entitled “The Decision We Must Make” and is based on the Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32.

The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday in Lent were Isaiah 55: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9.

As I stated, because of the Gospel reading for Sunday, I would have liked to have been in the pulpit. A number of years ago I wrote a piece (“The Bottom Line”) in which I noted that M*A*S*H was my all-time favorite television show/series. The movie is also one of my top ten but that is for another time and piece. I also noted in the piece that the “Banacek” and “The Rogues” were among my favorite shows.

For me, there was a little bit of an anti-establishment flavor in them. Banacek, played by George Peppard, was an insurance investigator brought into cases that were seemingly impossible to solve and beyond the capabilities of the insurance companies investigators. “The Rogues” were a family of thieves who started off planning some sort of elaborate theft or con that would bring some more evil person to justice and bring them a little more wealth. Both shows had limited runs on television and I always suspected that one of the reasons was the intellectual level was perhaps a bit higher than normal television fare. Besides, many times shows with an anti-establishment attitude generally don’t last long anyway (with M*A*S*H clearly an exception to this rule).

Two current shows that have joined my favorites lists are “Leverage” and “White Collar”. “Leverage” was on for about four years and just recently ended (though I think there is the possibility of some sort of made-for-TV movie lurking in the future somewhere). “White Collar” started a year after that and is currently completing a series of episodes.

Both have that anti-establishment tone that I like and both involved someone on the wrong side of the law doing good.

The reason that I am referring to “Leverage” is that we find out in the third episode of the first season (“The Miracle Job”) that Nate Ford had once studied for the priesthood while growing up in Boston. In the pilot for the series Ford is brought together with three individuals whom he had chased as an insurance investigator – Parker, the thief; Hardison, the hacker, and Elliot Spencer, the hitter. Circumstances in the pilot episode bring Sophie Deveraux, a grifter, onto the team.

After the pilot episode, the team established Leverage Consulting in Los Angeles and begins going after individuals or groups that have abused their power and privilege. In the third episode, an unscrupulous real estate developer has engineered a deal that will close the church pastored by a good friend of Nate.

As the episode is ending and the Leverage Consulting team is finishing their plans to bring down the real estate developer, we hear part of the priest’s homily, which focused on the parable of the fig tree that is our Gospel reading for today. For the priest, the parable of the fig tree represents an opportunity to speak to the church authorities who have approved the closure of the church and the sale of the property to the developer, arguing that time is needed to see growth in the church, growth in an area where there isn’t much life or hope, topics that speak to many churches today.

Now, as it happens, the church is named after Saint Nicholas, whom Parker sees as Santa Claus. But as Nate Ford points out at the end of the episode, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves. And the priest added earlier that it was interesting how God used the work of Nate Ford and his crew, thieves themselves, to save a church.

I think that I could have easily found a way to use the other readings in this message because they speak of moving beyond the present. Whether I am thinking about an episode of “Banacek” or “The Rogues” or watching a past or current episode of “Leverage” or “White Collar”, there is that thought that the hero is working at a slightly higher level than the others.

When I look at the work of the church today I wonder how many people do that, work at a level slightly above normal.

When I began teaching high school chemistry I found myself in a situation far different from the six or seven classes a day, five days a week that most teachers encounter. Lewis County C-1 operated on a modular schedule that was more along the lines of a college schedule of lecture, recitation, and laboratory. The typical method of teaching didn’t always works and I found myself trying to develop lab experiments and exercises since the traditional high labs didn’t fit.

Unknowingly, my work to prepare those lab materials for my chemistry lab introduced me to the work of Jean Piaget and his theory on how children develop their thinking skills. When I began working on my doctorate, I was convinced that my dissertation studies would be in that area, especially since much of the research literature in chemical education at that time focused on intellectual development in chemistry.

While I was looking at this idea, I was also introduced, admittedly in passing, to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Kohlberg argued that one’s moral development was in stages very similar to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Now, whether one is talking about cognitive development or intellectual development, it seems to me that it cannot be done independently. Each person develops at their own pace but for there to be progress it must be done in an environment that stimulates the development.

I cannot speak specifically to the ideas presented by Kohlberg but I do see too many people who, even completed college, have difficulty with abstract thought. Their entire educational process has been done without any stimulus and while they can respond to and solve basic problems, they are incapable of solving more complex problems or even thinking through problems with possibly no solution. All one has to do is look at what is happening in the world today and how we continually and constantly rely on old methods to solve new problems. In the end, the old methods don’t work and our general response is to force the solution instead of developing new ones. The problem is that we can’t develop new solutions because we don’t know how.

And I fear this is happening in the church today as well. There is a stage that every person has to go through when they grow in the faith – that of the child, learning about Christ and God.

There is a second stage, which I believe many people are in today. It is a stage where they have learned the Bible and the basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian but they haven’t done much with that learning. There is a need to learn the fundamentals of the Bible and we do that as children but there is also a need to understand those fundamentals and I fear that many adults do not do that.

They haven’t been placed in a situation where that was necessary and it will not come without stimulation. And because they haven’t been taught how to think beyond the walls of the room or outside the box, they are unwilling to grow their faith as well. The strength of those we call “fundamentalists” comes from the fact that they are able to state basic concepts of the Bible without fear of contradiction or questioning.

There is that third stage of Christian development. It is that stage where one takes the words of the Bible and makes them come alive; where they read of the people of the early church and how they helped others and seek to emulate that work in today’s society. Part of this might be found in the emerging church movement; part of this might be found in those who claim to be spiritual but not religious.

Those who look at the numbers that are generated by the church are still in that middle stage. They see the numbers as the indication of life and vitality. The only problems is that numbers speak to the size of the church and not the life.

Do the numbers tell you of the discussions that take place during a meeting, when individuals with varied backgrounds gather together for one reason but stay for another and discuss the meaning of God, Christ, and religion? How do you measure the change in life on an individual who comes to the meeting without knowledge of the love of God but leaves with perhaps some knowledge?

The numbers told the owner to cut down the fig tree because it wasn’t producing fruit. But the gardener argued that it needed just a bit more time and effort. If we are to be true to the Gospel and we want to grow the faith, shouldn’t we move beyond the walls of the sanctuary and into the fields and pay attention to the plants, trees, and individuals that live there? Our faith will not grow unless we do.

How Long?


These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

I am sure that there are some people on this planet who feel the recent earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami, and then the nuclear reactor disaster are the harbingers of the final days. Or perhaps they wondered just how much more humanity can take.

We know that people can survive for long periods of time without food, though the actual length depends on the individual’s physical situation and circumstance. But we can only go three or four days without water and even less time without oxygen.

From that standpoint, we need to look around at the world and what we have done to it. Our supplies of fresh water have always been limited and our cavalier attitude about the environment means that what fresh water and clean air that remains will soon be gone if we are not careful.

But how long can the spirit survive when it is assaulted? Look around at what is going on in the world and tell me if the human spirit may have reached such a point. Would the revolutions in the Middle East have occurred if the governments were not more attuned to the needs and cries of the people? Would the protest in Wisconsin have occurred if the governor were more attuned to the needs and wants of all the people instead of one or two rich individuals who want to keep all that they have?

I cannot explain the politics of this country, of people losing their rights and then watching whatever safety net might be in place taken away as well and cheering as it is done. I cannot explain how it is that so many people in this country are willing to cheer on the politicians who stand up and call for the removal of all social programs while allowing the military and defense budgets to keep growing, who stand up and call for less taxes for the rich but not for the rest of the country. I cannot explain how a politician can say that they are for jobs yet support measures and policies that take away jobs. I cannot explain how anyone can say that they are a Christian yet wrap themselves in the American flag and disdain helping the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.

Look around and tell me that is not what is happening in this country and around the globe today. And tell me why there are not more protests?

I have friends who feel that this country is on the verge of a revolution because a small group of individuals who have virtually all the wealth are trying to take what’s left as well. There are already those who call this country a plutocracy where a few rich individuals own everything and have no desire at all to share with anyone. How long can the human spirit endure?

How long can a church survive in a world where its members do not want to hear that their responsibility is to the people in their community and that the church is a sanctuary against the evil in the world? How long can a church survive when it only gives lip service to the food closet that is open once a week but for which the lines grow longer every day?

As you perhaps know from previous posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry at our church. It is one of two such ministries that take place on the weekends at our church. When she started this ministry, my wife wanted to feed the neighborhood children because many of them did not get a breakfast on the weekends. That hasn’t developed as we thought it might and maybe we should have stopped the ministry when it became apparent that it wasn’t headed in the direction we thought it would go. But that isn’t always God’s plan, now is it?

After all, as the Israelites wandered in the desert, they probably didn’t have a firm idea of where they were actually headed and each day’s journey was predicated on where the next water hole might be located.

So, we have kept this ministry going, giving between twenty and thirty individuals, some out of work, some homeless, some with substance abuse problems a good breakfast each Saturday and Sunday morning. It would appear that other ministries are going to come out of all of this, perhaps directed towards changing the direction of the lives of these individuals. But it hasn’t been easy. It is safe to say that there are individuals in the church who aren’t exactly thrilled that people off the street are coming into “their” church. And while many in the church worry about how the church will keep its doors open, they seem reluctant to let just anyone come through those open doors. I only say that because it seems to me that this is indicative of what is transpiring across the country. We have turned the sanctuary of the church into a safe haven for the members, protecting them from the evil outside the walls, instead of offering sanctuary to those whom evil will consume and whom society will toss on the garbage heap.

There are those who would tell us that we need to stop this ministry. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job for four years and it hasn’t been the easiest road to walk. There are times when we sound like the Israelites screaming at Moses about the lack of fresh water. The desert can be very cruel to people without water but just when the Israelites are screaming the loudest, God tells Moses what to do to get the water. That’s the way it has been with this ministry and I suspect that God will show us where to find the funds that will enable us to continue the journey. (And if you so desire to be a part of this effort, the address is “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen c/o Grace UMC, P. O. Box 2556, Newburgh, NY 12250.)

But Ann didn’t start this ministry for glorification or hope that God would repay us for our generosity. I don’t help where I can and write about it because I am expecting a pat on the back. It is because there are people out there whom society has cast aside and said that, because of one thing or another, they aren’t worthy of anything. But the church has said that each person is worthy and we are trying to put the words of the Gospel into action. And when the woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, Jesus offers her the respect that she is missing in her life.

Perhaps I am wrong about my assessment of the state of the world and the state of the church. But I also know that when society was in similar situations, it was the church that changed the course. When I first began my lay speaking ministry, I would say that England was saved from the violent revolution that overtook France in the years following our own revolution. I had read something about it but didn’t make note of where I had read it. But later on, I would find other documents that said the same thing – that because of the work that John Wesley and the other early Methodists did with regards to healthcare, schooling, prison and work reform, England did not undergo the violent revolution that would engulf France.

Look around and tell me if we are not in the same situation today. It isn’t just what is happening elsewhere; it is what is happening in our own backyards and neighborhoods. And Paul tells us that Christ has arrived at just the right time. When we open our doors to Christ, we find that the same doors have already been opened. And our fears that there is nothing that we can do are cast aside because of what Christ did for us so many years ago.

We are halfway through Lent. That means that there are only twenty days left in this journey. That means that there are twenty days left to make a decision, a decision to follow Christ, to put the Gospel message into action. How long will it take? How long before it is too late? How long, O Lord, how long?

“A Drink of Water”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 27 February 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

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There are not too many occasions when I get to use either chemistry or science education in my sermons. Today is one of those occasions.

When I taught science education courses in Texas, I would always ask my students what were the two most important liquids in Texas. Generally, they always got the answer right, water and oil. For without the one, you cannot get the other.

In chemical terms I suppose I could speak of the structure of the water molecule and how it affects the structure of ice molecules and why ice floats in water. I could also speak of the boiling and freezing points of water and how these unique temperature points make water a liquid when other similar substances are gases. These properties of water make it a very unique substance in the universe and very probably the key to life.

The properties of water can be explained by a phenomenon known as hydrogen bonding. It is hydrogen bonding which is the key to the structure of the DNA double helix, the basis for life as we know it.

Yes, water is a very unique substance. But one thing that does not require science of any kind for an explanation and has been known since mankind first walked has explored this world is that we need water to survive. For without water, our chances of survival are limited. The Israelites knew that very well. That is the reason that they were screaming at Moses in today’s Old Testament reading.

There are two things that I find interesting about this incident in the desert. First, it is not the first time that the Israelites have yelled at Moses about their situation.

In Exodus 14: 11 – 12, the Israelites said, in response to the oncoming Egyptian army, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14: 11 – 12) Then, in Exodus 16: 2 – 3, the people “complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly by hunger.” (Exodus 16: 2 – 3)

The Lord’s response to the first complaint was the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the Lord’s response to the second complaint was to provide manna from heaven. The first time the people were afraid, for the Egyptian army was powerful and the Israelites were incapable, at that time, of defending themselves. But the manner in which they voiced their complaints showed a lack of faith, not fear. In the second instance, their complaints come after they have seen the power of God destroy the Egyptian army and how God provided fresh water for them. One might think that by the time they had come to this point in their journey, they would known and understood that it was a small thing for God to provide them with water.

Asking for water is not a sin; but what the Israelites are doing in this reading today is complaining. This is a challenge to God’s faithful mercy and evidence of unbelief in His provision. There is also something interesting about this passage. When the Israelites first came to Egypt, they were nomadic herdsman, used to traveling in the desert and seeking sources of water. Now, after all the years in Egypt, they had forgotten the skills that kept their families alive. They did not know how to find the water that would keep them alive and instead of seeking out a means of finding the water, they complained.

There are a many times when we are like the Israelites in the desert. We would rather complain about the situations that we face than seek an answer. And we often forget that the answer that we seek is available if we only look for it.

But Paul tells us that we need not struggle so; our efforts need not be futile. No longer are we trapped in the here and now, suffering and complaining but rather looking forward to the future and what it will bring. The tribulation of life no longer brings us down but rather gives us strength and endurance. Because of Christ, Paul writes, we have access to God. In those days, to gain access to the king was a special occasion and one not many were granted. But, through Christ, we now have access to God. We no longer face judgment for our life as it would if we were to stand before an earthly king. Our presence before the throne of God gives us reason to celebrate and rejoice.

It is the water of the well that ties this reading in the New Testament to the reading of the Old Testament today. Jesus is in Samaria because it is the direct route between Judea and Galilee. Most Jews, who wanted to avoid Samaria and contact with the Samarians, would travel a more circular route, going north along the River Jordan. But Jesus saw no need for that because he held no prejudice against either the Jews or the Samaritans.

To the Jews of the Bible, the Samaritans were a group of people to be excluded. Disagreements had arisen about what were the holy sites; for the Jews, it was Jerusalem, for the Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim. This difference was one of many between the two groups both of whom descended from the Israelites who wandered in the desert. For the Jews, the Samaritans were beyond contempt and not worthy of any salvation from God. It was this contempt and hatred between the two that allowed Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan and for us to know about the woman at the well.

For the woman of this New Testament story is coming to the well to get her daily water supply. But she is coming at the worst possible day, noontime. It is the beginning of the hottest period of the day and the time when most people were in the cool of their homes. So why does she come then and why did she not come earlier, especially when the well was the social center of the village?

Is it perhaps because her life is the subject of gossip at the well? Is it because she is not welcome among the women of the village? Many of us are amazed, as was the woman, when Jesus speaks of the woman and the person with whom she is living but who is not her husband. But a woman does not come to the well at the worst time of the day unless she does not want to be a part of society.

And while the woman expects Jesus to spurn her as the citizens of the town have and as the Jews have done to Samaritans for countless years, He does not. He treats her with respect in requesting a drink of water and he treats her amazement kindly. More importantly, Jesus offers to her what He offers to all of us, the chance for salvation.

Jesus also gives a chance to see ourselves, for there are times when we are the people being excluded and there are times when we are the ones doing the excluding. The one thing people are doing today is struggling. When we look around the world today, we see people whose hearts are struggling, we see people whose minds are fighting and we see people whose souls doubt. It would be very difficult for us to be anything else but one of those individuals. And then we find that we are like the children of Israel in the desert, judging Moses for his failure to provide them with water. And we find that we are like the disciples, who would have sent the people sitting on the hill listening to the Sermon on the Mount home hungry rather than try and find a way to feed them with six loaves and two fishes.

But we can change the way we see the world, we can ease the doubts that torment our souls, and we can end the fighting in our minds. Like the Samaritan woman, we need to see Jesus, not as an excellent teacher or renowned rabbi, but as the Son of God, a revelation of God. She sees in Jesus the bearer of the Good News, she hears from Jesus that there is new life found in the Spirit, in the Living Water.

And this new life summons her from the ageless racism and divisiveness that was her life and into a new eternal life. When the woman at the well looks again into the well, she sees not herself or others, but the image of Jesus. The same is true for us; for when we see Jesus, when we turn our eyes to Jesus (UMH #349), life changes. For the woman at the well, drinking from the well of the living water will give her life and invite her to love rather than judge others.

The people of Israel found the days of the Exodus a struggle. At every step of the way, they argued with Moses and with God. God chose to love them, in spite of themselves. Many times, we argue with God because we struggle as we journey through the wilderness. Like the woman at the well, we find that we are alone in our struggle, seeking comfort when the times are the most difficult.

During this Lenten season, we need to face ourselves and see where our heart is focused. When we are tempted to judge others or to promote ourselves, we can remind ourselves that we we do not walk this path of love and righteousness under our own power. (Adapted from “Spiritual snobs” by Scot McKnight in “Living the Word” from Christian Century, February 22, 2005) On those days when this walk gets hot and we get thirsty, we should pause and get a cup of water. But not water from the well of daily living, for that water does not quench the thirst we have, but rather water from the Living Water. It is that drink of water that we search for.

 


“Testing the Lord”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 7 March 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

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Have you ever asked God for something? Maybe it was something small, like a particular gift or you wanted Him to solve a small problem. But it could have been something major like guidance in a change in jobs or an improvement in your job situation or some other life-related issue. Now, there is nothing wrong with doing this; after all, we routinely ask Him to take care of those that are sick and injured and we know that He answers our prayers.

But what happens when it seems like He doesn’t answer our prayers? Don’t we get upset when we don’t get the answer that we wanted? And if we prayed hard and long and the person for whom we prayed doesn’t get better, don’t we get mad? Don’t we feel as if God has abandoned us?

The problem you see is that we somehow have to reconcile the reality of mankind’s miseries with that of a good God. There is no completely satisfying explanation to the problem of a good God who is powerful and sovereign over an evil world. After God did not spare his own Son from the pain of death. And did not Jesus himself seek relieve from the anguish of his upcoming ordeal.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14: 35)

It is as if we sought to test God, to put our problems before Him and say “Prove that you are God.” It is times like these when we are like the Israelites wondering through the wilderness, questioning God’s intentions, doubting in our own abilities. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again grumbling because they do not have any water to drink.

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to lace as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

This was not the first time that the Israelites had grumbled about God’s plan. In previous chapters, they had grumbled because the Egyptian army was chasing after them and when they did not have any water. Yet, in all instances, God provided the means for them to escape and survive.

As long as it is not too great, as long as we are willing to listen to God, then everything goes well. We might not like the situation but we know that it will come out okay. We just can never understand it when it looks like God has abandoned us.

But we have to understand that God never intended for us to suffer. When Paul wrote in Romans, “but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope”, he used the term “in” rather than “because of”. Life is a joyous and triumphant, not one of morbidity and despair. But it can only be joyous when we understand that Jesus died for our sins.

Paul pointed out that we are not God’s enemies, to be the object of his wrath when we have done wrong. Nor are we to be abandoned should things go bad for us. Our suffering produces the perseverance that ultimately brings us hope. Such hope is not real world optimism but the assurance of our future destiny, of our life in Christ. As Paul wrote, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Note that Paul used the present tense because Christ is present for us now.

The Samaritan woman who came to the well knew first hand the feeling of abandonment. After all, society had not taken kindly to the life style she had chosen to follow. But God and Christ do not abandon someone because of their life style.

The woman was surprised that Jesus knew all about her but should we be surprised? After all, Jesus is always with us, though we might not know it.

God’s presence in our life is best explained by the battle the Israelites fought with the Amalekites. Just after the incident with the water, the Israelites engaged in a battle with the Amalekites.

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

As it was noted in the Scripture, as long as Moses acknowledged the presence of the Lord by holding up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But when he grew tired and his hands dropped the tide of the battle changed. I think this is very much what we encounter when we are under stress.

Did God leave the battle when the Israelites started losing or was it that Moses and the Israelites had left Him? God was always there, waiting for His people to come to him. Yes, Jesus knew everything about the woman because He was a presence in her life, even if she did not understand that.

The feeling of abandonment is like a thirst that cannot go away. You may drink water but the thirst is still there. Christ offers, not only to the woman at the well, but to each of us today, the opportunity to remove that thirst, of that feeling. Life is not going to get easy just because we accept Christ. If anything, it might get harder.

But when we speak of the Gospel, we speak of the “Good News”. God’s will for us involves an ultimate celebration, not on-going suffering and sorrow. In writing to Romans, Paul spoke of celebrating, of the victory that Christ has over sin.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The woman at the well came to know Christ because she understood that she had not been abandoned. After it was all over, after everything that he had worked for was taken away, Job came away with twice as much as he had before because he did not lose faith.

The celebration of life goes on because we know that Christ died for us and yet he still lives. Is there a feeling in you that just won’t go away? The path we walk is never easy and there are times when we might think that life is unfair but as long as we continue to understand that God loves us, that He sent His Son for our benefit, the rewards of life are beyond description. The test for each one of us is to allow Christ into our hearts.

 


What is the value of the future?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 7 March 2010.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 55: 1- 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1- 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9.

What value do we place on the future? I would say that we don’t place any value on it. After all, it is only something “out there” with no physical capabilities. And we know that the future changes and it is never what it might be.

But it isn’t so much that we place some sort of value on the future as it is we place too much value on the present. And we do everything we can to hold onto what we have now. And as the past months have shown, when the future does become a reality, it is something that we are neither prepared for or what we thought it might be.

Jesus tells the story about a man with a fig tree that had yet to produce any fruit. And a fig tree, or for that matter, any fruit tree that does not produce fruit is a useless tree. Oh, it does provide shade on a hot, sunny day and it does offer a place where the birds can build a nest but that’s not why we planted the tree. So, a fruit tree that does not produce fruit should be cut down. It isn’t just the owner of the vineyard in the Gospel reading who feels that way; it is the way we, as a society, feel today.

If you are not producing something of value now, then you should be just cast aside. Look at our schools. Several years ago, Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind” law as a means of determining the accountability of our schools. Now, more and more people are suddenly realizing what many of us knew several years ago, the law does not work. You cannot measure the success of any school by a single year’s test scores; the true measure of success is several years down the road and unless you cultivate the “soil”, i.e. the school environment, it will never produce the “fruit”. But when we see a school in trouble, society’s answer is to blame the teachers and fire them, dismantle the school, and create some sort of private school that will do a better job.

But if you spend time looking at what they are doing in these charter schools, you will see that (and again, this is something that I know that I have said time and time again) they are teaching the students the answers to the test. We see the scores go up but when the students are tested later, they don’t know the answers.

We fear the future more than we value it. It is an unknown that we are unwilling to face. So we live in the moment rather than for tomorrow. We need to hear the words of Isaiah from today’s Old Testament reading – we need to eat what is good instead of constantly eating junk food. But a lot of people aren’t going to get to those words in the passage; they will stop and turn away when Isaiah offers food and drink for free. We rebel at the idea that everyone gets the best food and the best drink. We cannot stand the thought that everyone will have the best because we really don’t care for others; all that we care about is ourselves.

We cannot see that unless we change our ways, unless we repent and begin anew, then we are going to be like those who Isaiah complains about, like those who Paul complains about and those whom Jesus flat out says will die.

When I looked at the translation of Isaiah from The Message, it included verses 10 & 11 –

Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.

We should not begin to think that we will think like God, for such thoughts are beyond our capability (verses 8 & 9) but we can hear the words that he speaks to us and it will be the words that change this world. The words were spoken to us, first by Jesus, then by the disciples and Paul, and then by everyone who has heard them down through the ages.

Yes, the words have changed over the years but we have the words before us and we can do great things with what those words mean, provided that we place some value on the future. If we do not care for the fig tree, it will not yield fruit. If we do not place a more intrinsic value on education, it will not bear fruit. If we do not begin to put value on the message of the Gospel, to heal the sick, to feed the poor, to free the oppressed, then there will be no value in our lives even if we, individually and/or collectively, are well-fed, healthy, and not oppressed.

It is time to take care of the fig tree. We are faced with a health care crisis in this country and it is one that will not be solved by any plan that does not put the people first. If the decision is made to let companies, driven by the bottom line of profit, make the decisions about health care then the fig tree will die.

We are faced with innumerable people in this world who are faced with little or no health care, inadequate or limited food supplies, inadequate or limited shelter. We know from history that nations have gone to war for these reasons and yet we are more willing to fight wars than provide health care, food, and shelter.

We profess outrage at the idea of abortion and say that “thou shall not murder” but are quite willing to let the state or federal government execute someone. We are quite willing to invade the bedroom and scream at what we see as sexual immorality but we will not invade the boardroom and scream at greed and avarice. (Yes, I know there is no degree of sin and sexual immorality is just as sinful as greed and avarice but who is hurt more by the actions of two people – two people in their bedroom or two bankers keeping all the money that they scammed from countless numbers of people.)

But, whether you read the words of Paul, Isaiah, or Jesus, you hear the same thing. There is an opportunity today to change the direction, to change the outcome, to change the world. Seek the Lord and abandon your previous thoughts and ways, Isaiah said. Do not test the Lord and he will not test you said Paul.

And “unless you repent, you will perish as the others did” said Christ. There is a value to the future; it is what lies before us and it contains so much more than we can imagine. But if we are caught up in the moment called now, we cannot get there. If we put all of our value in the present, there can be no value in the future.

We have a choice and we need to make that choice right now.