“In Defense of One’s Faith”


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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In 2005, Lei Li sought political asylum in the United States because he felt he was being persecuted for being a Christian in his home country of China. However, the immigration judge who heard his case decided that Li did not answer certain questions about Christianity correctly. What is interesting is that while he was confused about certain items upon which he was quizzed, Li did say that Jesus did come to save people from sin, that he willingly died on the cross and that he rose from the dead on the third day and 40 days later ascended into heaven and that, in this way, he saves our lives.

I would think that, considering the situation in which he was living and attempting to be a Christian, to acknowledge what Jesus did for each one of us should have been sufficient reason to allow his request. Apparently the judge who heard the case in 2005 did not think so. Though it was denied in 2005 an appeals court has ruled that there is sufficient evidence to review this case and Li will receive a second hearing. (See http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/01/20/33481.htm for a discussion of this case and my thanks to John Meunier for bringing this to my attention – “Chinese Christian Grilled on Doctrine”.)

Now, the most obvious question that comes from all of this has to be, “how would you prove that you were a Christian?” And then, “how would you prove that you were a United Methodist?” Do you understand what it means to be a Christian? Do you understand what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church?

I have come to the conclusion that many people may say that they are Christian but their understanding of what they say they are is limited. I know many who say that they are United Methodist but cannot give you a clear and concise statement of what it means to be a Methodist. This is especially true when it comes to the policies, rules, and regulations of the United Methodist Church.

There are also many today who say that unless you can quote the Bible specifically by chapter and verse, you are not a Christian. If that were the case, I would fail since memorization of Bible verses has never been one of my strong points. And while I marvel at those who are able to recite various verses of the Bible, I wonder if they understand what it is that they are saying.

From an educational standpoint, memorization is one of the lowliest skills in the learning process. You have to be able to analyze and interpret what you are reading to have a true understanding of what you have read.

The interesting thing in today’s society is the number of atheists who probably know the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity far better than many average Christians. Now, it is only my opinion but it would seem to me that it isn’t their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity that causes them to denounce Christianity or to say there is no God but rather how they observe others who proclaim with no uncertainty that they know the truth found through Christ and God.

If my faith is determined by what others believe or tell me to believe, I am going to have a very, very hard time defending my faith. It has always struck me that when someone tries to tell me that I must believe in a certain way or that one translation of the Bible is the true translation, we are looking at a situation very comparable to the time of the Pharisees and Scribes before Jesus began His ministry.

When I am told that there is only one interpretation to the words of the Bible, when I am told that what I read is the way it happened, no matter how implausible or illogical that may be, I have to wonder if they know what they are saying. When you make faith an inflexible and unchangeable to object, to be repeated by rote and without understanding, you risk losing your faith, not defending it.

Faith comes from within and is unique to each person. It evolves and changes through time. The changes may be clearer understanding of a passage or they maybe radical restructuring of one’s view of the world.

Micah does two things at the beginning of the Old Testament reading for today. First, he tells the people that God is challenging them to defend their faith and He makes it very clear that they need to be prepared to defend their actions.

God points out that what the people are doing as a sign of their faith shows little respect for God. The sacrifices and offerings that the people are making are little more than bribes, attempts to curry favor with God when their own lives speak of disrespect and a lack of knowledge about what God had done for them.

Ask yourself the same questions, “Is God impressed with the gifts we bring or the sacrifices we make?” Or would God rather that we live a life that expresses His presence in our lives as the later verses in today’s reading point out.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Gospel message, he points out that they have to see it in a new way. They cannot live the Gospel message in the way they used to live their lives because it wouldn’t work. The Gospel message wasn’t about one’s place in society or the air of authority that they presented; it was how the Gospel message changed their lives.

How are we to read the Gospel reading for today? If Jesus is teaching the people, if Jesus is teaching us, what exactly is He teaching? For some, the Beatitudes are a set of rules, perhaps difficult to understand and follow but a set of rules nonetheless and if one follows them, one gets into heaven. But as Clarence Jordan pointed out in his book Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God on earth is Jesus’ specific proposal to humanity. But it is the message of all four Gospels and not just the Sermon on the Mount that makes that proposal.

Time after time, in order to make His point, Jesus started His teaching with “You have heard it said but I say to you.” This was the challenge that He gave us so that we would be able to not only come to faith but grow in it as well.

There should only be one time in one’s life that they must defend their faith. Unfortunately there are those today who will demand that you defend it before that time comes. Can you, through not only your words but your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions provide the basis for a sound defense?

The interesting thing is that Jesus never asks you to defend your faith. He asks you to believe in Him and then follow Him. Your choice today is to decide if you shall do just that. If you do, then you will be able to the other. There, truly, is no option.

“What Is The Verdict?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that there is a crisis within the church. It is a crisis that transcends the nature of Christianity, crosses across denominational boundaries, and filters down to the local churches.

Christianity today, I think, is seen more often in terms of exclusion and exclusivity. It is seen as intolerant and vindictive. How many gays and lesbians will seek solace in a church when the public view of Christianity is that Christians are homophobic? We may have laughed when the Roman Catholic Church admitted that perhaps the church was wrong in punishing Galileo for his views on the structure of the solar system. We may have laughed because we knew that Galileo was right and the church was wrong. But even today, some Christians are pushing to limit the pursuit of scientific knowledge by restricting the teaching of the theory of evolution in the high school classroom. In one sense, I side with creationists because I think that the theory of evolution is incorrectly taught. But creating and teaching an alternative theory that violates the mandates of scientific thought is not the answer.

For some, religion of any kind is bad. Seen in the context of history, religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. But millions of lives have also been destroyed by political strife and by technology and science, yet few advocate getting rid of them. We may want to get rid of religion but we have to know what we seek to remove. If I think good is what benefits my friends and harms my enemies, then my religion may be dangerous. If, on the other hand, I come to think that good is what enables all intelligent and thinking beings to flourish, and the spiritual reality is supremely beautiful, wise, and compassionate, then my religion can be a tremendous force for human good. (From "The Good of Religion", published in Science and Theology News (November 2004) and reprinted in the February issue of Context.)

Somewhere along the line, the nature of the Gospel message has been removed from the nature of Christianity. No longer is a message of hope and promise for those in need; rather, it seems to be a message of greed and intolerance, of exclusivity and closed-mindedness. Jesus spoke of offering comfort and support to those with physical and spiritual needs; the churches of today, at least from the public perception of Christianity, no longer do that.

It is a problem that crosses denominational lines. We have heard the stories and the statistics about the decline in membership in mainline churches while at the same time there is growth and vitality in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Tony Campolo, the noted evangelist, pointed out mainline denominational leaders did not pay enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longed for a message of deliverance. These leaders often failed to give sufficient recognition to people’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism of modernity and addressed the painful social crisis of the times. Too often they overlooked the fact that people craved a feeling of connectedness with God that gave them the sense of being inwardly transformed. In the pews of mainline churches were men and women who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being "filled with the Spirit," but mainline theology and preaching marginalized such dimensions of Christianity.

The growth of the more evangelical churches can be seen in light of those comments. People want the experience and they get it in these newer, younger churches. But that is because these newer churches place a greater emphasis on individuals making a personal decision for Christ. And such decisions require a high level of commitment to participating in the mission of the church. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo)  For many young members of mainline churches, growing up in the church does not lead to such a commitment, so they leave seeking Christ elsewhere.

The problem for these newer churches is that they do not care what others may think of them. No church, mainline or new, conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or advanced in theology, should ever compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community in which it serves. It should, first, make sure that they preach the Gospel message and know what the Gospel means in which they believe. Second, we should care that people in the secular community see Jesus in us. I think, and I have said, that these newer churches will encounter difficulties in the coming years because, as people grow in their faith, they will have difficulty reconciling the views of the church with the Gospel. And it is this difference which has lead to the public perception of Christianity about which I have already spoken.

In the localized world of this century, another religious development is urgently needed — one that takes into full account the moral and scientific advances in the world since the 16th century, when the scientific revolution began. Religions that take this step will be self-critical, recognizing the uncertainty of all human knowledge and accepting that criticism is the most secure path to the truth. This does not mean that they must give up their central distinctive doctrines; there will always be diverse religious beliefs, and believers will have firm commitments to their centrally revealed or authoritatively defined truths. But even firm practical commitment can be allied with humility, with an admission that there are many things one does knot know and many things that are incompletely understood. Self-criticism is openness to learn from others, not a practical hesitancy about one’s own deepest commitments.1

The last crisis is at the local level and, I am not talking just about Tompkins Corners in this regard. It is a crisis which affects all small and rural churches, churches within the United Methodist Church under the "Town and Country" banner.

As Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we are so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

With all these crisis and with all that is going on in the world, is there hope for the world? I think there is. The job of the church is to tell the truth; this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on September 11th; everything changed on the day Christ was born more than 200o years ago. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when Christ was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rosefrom the dead to give us new life — it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history. We are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits on violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the unbreaking kingdom of God.

The "holy nation" of which the scriptures speak, Exodus 19: 6 (– And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a ‘holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.) and 1 Peter 2: 9 (– But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,), is not the United States or any other nation-state, but the church, the universal body that transcends national boundaries. If the church narrates history faithfully, it will resist the idolatry of the state and resist the politics of fear that makes torture unthinkable (the writer was speaking to the issue of the nomination and confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States). In concrete terms, this means refusing to fight in unjust wars, refusing to use unjust means, and refusing to be silent when the country drifts toward the institutionalization of "exceptional measures." (From "Taking Exception" by William T. Cavanaugh in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

While the writer of those words was thinking of the atrocities in Iraq and the apparent callousness of the present administration towards our treatment of prisoners there and in Cuba, I think that his words are also applicable to the role and duty of the church in this country in terms of everyday life. We cannot, if we are Christians, stand by and let evil, in what ever form it may take rise up and take the place of good. Rather, we must stand firm, grounded in our faith and knowing that what we have been taught from birth and what we have come to believe is the truth – the Christ is the Lord and Savior.

Paul writes to the Corinthians about the nature of wisdom, of who is wise and who is foolish. He writes about who is called to be the representatives of Christ. It is important that we understand that God’s plan of salvation does not confrom to the world’s priorities. To many it seems foolish. But God used what one might consider foolish and despised in this world to reveal His truth, so that He alone would receive the glory. Otherwise the powerful would boast that they had found the truth. Instead, God sent His Son to become a humble carpenter and to die in the most despicable way, on a cross. Jesus’ life and death reveal God and God’s wisdom.

The Beatitudes place our lives in the context of the whole realm and scope and community of God’s love and justice. More description than instruction, more report than directive, they compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality. Speaking of those who have already "crossed over," those who even now inhabit the kingdom of God, the first part of each beatitude identifies who is blessed and the second part names the group’s relationship to God. And the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless. A powerful antidote to the contrived happiness of consumerism and mindless entertainment of our day, they are good news to God’s people, the humble of the earth, the strong of heart, those who take refuge in God alone. Yet, this is the way it should be.

The prophet Micah said something quite similar using different words: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (From "Be happy" by Patricia Farris in "Living the Word" in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

The passage from Micah can be seen as a courtroom scene in which the Lord lodges a legal complaint against Israel. The first two verses are where the Lord summons the people to listen to his accusation and to prepare their defense against the charges that will follow in verses 9 through 16. The Lord speaks in verses 3 through 5 poignantly reminding the people of his gracious acts in their behalf. In verses 6 and 7 Israel speaks and in verse 8 Micah responds directly to the nation, answering the questions of verses 6 and 7.

So, here we are, in God’s courtroom, facing the charges before us. Whether we care to admit it or not, the crisis of the church are our crisis. And how we respond will determine the outcome of the case. We can be like some who seek the glory for themselves. Such a choice will not gain us what we need.

But we can do what is asked of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? The jury will now begin its deliberations and the verdict will be known soon.



“The Trial We Have to Face”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon United Methodist Church (Neon, KY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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I thought that I would be able to avoid talking about trials and the legal process but after reading the passage from Micah for today, I don’t think that is possible. But it is not the trial and impeachment of President Clinton that is of importance to us today, but rather how we, the people have reacted.

It would seem that for all the hyperbole that has surrounded this event, the majority of American people really don’t care about the trial or the underlying issues that are accompanying the trial. In part, because the economy is doing well and we are at peace in the world, the people are content. It has always been said that when we are at peace or when the economy is sound, the people don’t really care much about what happens in Washington or with politicians in general. Yet, if either of the two should go bad, then we turn to the leaders and demand that they lead.

It is as if we really don’t care. Now, it should be said that I do think that President Clinton has done a great wrong but the judgement of his actions are not for us to decide. I also think that those in opposition to President Clinton long ago turned a noble legal process into a partisan political battle that can only hurt us in the long run. After all, it has long been noted that we cannot legislate morality, which is what President Clinton’s opposition is wanting.

So against this backdrop, I ask how should we live our lives? What will happen to us when some critical issue, something that truly affects us and our place in the world comes about? It is typical human nature to think that we can solve our problems with the skills and abilities that we naturally have. But in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that man’s wisdom, his intellect is nothing more than foolishness.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of the God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Though our temptation is to always think that we can solve any problem that we might encounter through our own efforts, those efforts are to be doomed because of our own foolishness. And what are we to do when we encounter a problem that we cannot solve or overcome. A gentleman by the name of James Finley wrote

Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy besides its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us. (From Merton’s Place of Nowhere by James Finley)

In the Old Testament reading for today, Micah asks God, on the behalf of the people of Israel, what can we do? Remember that in this passage, God has essentially put the people of Israel and us on trial for having forgotten him, for having felt that it is possible to solve the problems they face without Him.

Listen to what the Lord says: “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say,

Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundation of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.

I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

So what are we to do? We certainly don’t have the capability of sacrificing thousands of rams and we certainly cannot buy the amount of oil that would be necessary to be considered a worthy sacrifice. But that is the point, you see. We don’t have to make any sacrifices because the sacrifice was made for us. When Christ died on the cross, he died for our sins; Christ was the sacrifice. The think that our human wisdom cannot comprehend is that this is truly possible; tat the Messiah would be like us. In 1 Corinthians 1: 22, Paul writes “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. If you are expecting the Messiah as a worldly king to lead you, then someone who is hanged as a common criminal cannot be that person. And certainly from a logical standpoint, the true Messiah would have the power to prevent such a crucifixion from every happening.

But that is the hardest thing for us to realize; that Christ’s crucifixion changes the way we look at lives.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

God used that which would expect cannot be used in order to save us from our sins. And we have to understand that such an accomplishment goes beyond what our own intellectual ability is capable of doing.

Is this to say that we forgo intelligence and wisdom? I do not think so, for after all, if we do not use our wisdom and skills that God has given us, we would be like the third person in the story of the talents who hid the one talent that he had been given by his master.

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here it what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)

So if we forsake our intelligence, our skills, our abilities, we will lose that which we have and we will actually be worse off that before we started. So how then do we live? How is it that we can use our skills, our talents?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out the guidelines for living. Now, each of the Beatitudes is not so much what we have to do but how we face life.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus started each of these lines with the word “blessed” because the word referred to the ultimate well being and distinctive joy we would share in the salvation of the kingdom of God. We are poor in spirit as contrasted with those are spiritually proud and self-centered. The kingdom of Heaven is our gift from God rather than something we could have ever earned.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Being meek means that we are humble before God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The heart is the center of our being and includes our mind, our will, and our emotions. If we allow things to cloud them, then we are unable to see God

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

In becoming a peacemaker, as far as we can, we reflect the character and nature of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is our goal, both as a present reality and for our future.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

If we allow Christ into our lives, the nature of our living changes. As it was noted, if our heart is pure, we can see God and we can talk with him.

We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit.

That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God.

Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God.

Only God can speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here; a crisis of contemplation.

The Church wants to feel able to explain about here spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.

The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature, the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason. It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things. We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, “Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.”

And we can avoid pretending that knowledge of God could be the fruit of our gray matter.

Then, and only then, shall we be capable of prayer; borne to the frontier of our radical incapacity, which love has made the beatitude of poverty, we shall be able to invoke God’s coming to us, “Come, creator Spirit!” (From the God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

Communicating with God begins with prayer. In the monthly conference newsletter, there was an article about John Wesley and the role prayer played in his live. To Wesley, prayer was the central means to being near God on a daily basis. He felt, as I am sure you would agree, that neglecting daily prayer would leave us, in Wesley’s words, in a “wilderness state”, comprised of dryness and aimlessness.

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the following parable:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7: 24 – 27)

Like Hymn #368 tells us, our hope for the present and the future is built on nothing less that Jesus Christ’s righteousness. It is the rock of our foundation and though there may be storms all around us, we cannot be hurt. That foundation gets stronger every day when we live a life that is God-centered; one like Wesley that starts each day with prayer.

My friends, it is we who are on trial this day. And we may worry about what the verdict will be. As long as a person is self-centered and thinks that they alone can solve the problem, their lives are going to be devoid of any wellbeing, no matter how happy they appear to be. And when some crisis comes that extends beyond their capabilities, they will fall. But when we allow Christ to come into our live, when we allow God to be the center of our soul, such fears are gone because our wisdom and intelligence become tools for God to use in this world.

Are you prepared to receive the verdict of the court?

And How Shall You Speak?


I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010 were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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There was a murder trial in Wichita, Kansas, the other day. And whatever your thoughts about the trial might be, it was a murder trial. It was not a platform for a discussion of societal issues, which the defendant wanted it to be. It was not, as I believe the defendant wanted it to be, a platform for the presentation of his views. The defendant admitted that he planned the murder and then he carried out the plan. And the jury found him guilty of murder. And this young man will spend the rest of his life in jail.

I do not want to focus on either the reason for the murder or what the victim did; that is for another time and another place. But I am bothered that this young man basically used Christianity as his defense. His primary argument was that he had the right to murder his victim in order to save the lives of others and that he should not be punished as severely for his crimes as others might be.

His argument was that it is against one of the commandments to kill someone yet it is permissible to kill someone who is killing someone. And while Kansas does have the death penalty, it apparently does not apply to this case and we can also leave this discussion for another time and place. This young man will spend the rest of his life in a version of Sheol that is his own creation. And he will not get to die as a martyr to his faith, which I think he would like to do.

But my bringing this point up is that this young man said that the words of Christ and the words in the Bible were the justification for his thoughts and his actions. What bothers me is that he and those who support him will quote Leviticus 24: 19, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Too many people have taken this as a commandment; that which must be done. In truth, it is a limit.

We as a race and a society have a remarkable tendency to make up our own punishment, to decide the justice that each crime requires. It is our very nature as humans to hurt our attacker more than we were hurt. The phrasing in Leviticus was meant to put a limit to this vengeful tendency of mankind.

But I find something more disturbing in all of this, if it is possible to find something more disturbing than the murder of someone. It is that the word Christian was used in a way that is so contradictory to what it is supposed to mean. This trial and how the word Christian was used only reinforced something else that I heard last week.

Last week I heard someone speaking about the nature of society today in relationship to the Supreme Court decision that essentially confirmed the notion that a corporation in this country has the same rights and privileges as a citizen. This speaker painted a very bleak picture and harkened back to the late 1920s and early 30s when the Weimar Republic in Germany was seized by the Nazis. He spoke of the rich and the powerful gathering up the power, the wealth and material goods of this planet and finding ways of preventing others from sharing or benefiting. It is almost as if this group of ultra-elites seeks a Roman Empire state of mind. There is peace in this world of the ultra-elites but it is a peace enforced by countless skirmishes and wars along the border. There is prosperity in this world of the ultra-elites but it is prosperity for only the few and where the majority of the population is enslaved by economic status. It would also be a 21st century equivalent of Rome in biblical times except for one thing, the church.

Then the church, or rather the church community, was in opposition to the direction of the Empire. They worked for the people who were forgotten and cast aside; they worked for those who had no support.

But the picture that was painted by this speaker included the church as being that part of society that worked against the people. And while he confirmed what I knew and heard from others close to me also say, he didn’t say as others have that the “religious right” was at fault; he said that “Christians” were at fault and he did not differentiate between those who are Christians in what they say and what they do and those who say they are Christians but whose words, whose deeds, and whose lives belie the very word they want to be known by.

It was almost as if this speaker had forgotten that the church was the prime mover for civil rights in the sixties and against the war in Viet Nam. Yes, there were those in the church, pastors and laity alike, who wanted no part of the civil rights movement and were very much for the war in Viet Nam; they were the ones who created the conservative side of the church today. But I could not see then and I cannot see now how you can claim to be a follower of Christ and then find ways to imprison and degrade other human beings, or to use violence as a justification for violence, and turn your hearts against other human beings.

Last week, I spoke of the Bible being a living document, one in which the message remains true over the years. This is especially true when you read Paul’s words about saying things and doing things but saying and doing them with an empty heart and without love. The words and actions of too many Christians today are such words and such actions; they are words of selfish children, interested in their own well-being and outcome. The difference between a child-like faith and an adult-like faith is not situational but expanded. You see more of the world; those with the child-like faith that Paul writes about are limited in their thinking. The problem is that too many adults have this self-centered view of faith.

We cannot expect to find peace in this world if there is no peace in our hearts. And we cannot expect to have peace in our hearts until such time as we come to truly know Christ and the words that He spoke about taking care of people and loving each other fully and unconditionally.

But what this speaker said was true; the shift taking place in this country, the favoritism given to the rich and powerful over the rest of society, the destruction of individual rights, and the marginalization of the individual in general is supported by many who call themselves Christian. There is a distinct correlation between what is happening today in this country and what happened in Germany in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power.

One of the major groups that supported Hitler was the Lutheran Church. For many in the church, his nationalist rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry. And many turned a blind eye to the racism and the bigotry because they felt the same way as well, though perhaps not as overtly.

To turn a blind eye is nothing new. Jesus stood up in front of the people in the synagogue where He grew up, in front of the people who saw Him grow up and pronounced the fulfillment of the prophecy. Yet the people turned against Him when He reminded them of their failure as a nation to take care of people and their self-centeredness.

We who were taught and raised to see the church as the instrument for the salvation for humankind may find it hard to believe that many people died because the church as an institution and individually turned a blind eye to what was happening. But it did and we must not let it happen again. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).

But we also need to remember that not all Lutheran pastors went merrily along with the crowd. There were many pastors who stood up and opposed the transformation of the Lutheran church into the spiritual advisor of the Nazi regime. There were people like Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reverend Schneider was a Lutheran minister who consistently and openly spoke out against the Nazi regime and its attempt to subvert the Lutheran church. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald and died from a lethal injection in 1939 (This was adapted from comments about Paul Schneider in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell).

I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to the churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either Schneider or Bonhoeffer say to those whose view of the future does not keep the Cross in plain sight?

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the anti-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time. When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930′s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.

Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.

During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This was adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.

I cringe at the thought that what happened 80 years ago may again be happening in this country today. I cringe because that is not how I came to my own faith and my understanding of what Christianity is about. When I was in college and struggling to learn many things, one of the things that I had to struggle with was the very nature of my faith. My vision of faith was very rudimentary and perhaps false.

I was like the child of faith that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians for today. But I wanted to learn; I wanted to understand how my faith would help me through those tough times then and the tough times now. I don’t have the answers but my faith is still growing as I learn more about it.

But too many people stay as a child when it comes to their faith; they hold onto the simplistic ideas that they were taught as a child. The problem is that we cannot stay as a child when it comes to faith, because to do so is to leave our faith incomplete. I have seen too many people in my time whose faith is like that of a child because they stopped growing. In part, it was because the church did not offer the chance for the faith to grow; in part, because each individual was quite content with a faith that was black and white with no delineation of gray.

It is hard to live in the 21st century with a basis for belief that is locked into the past. It is hard to grow up when you are limited in what you know because you have closed your heart and mind to the message. The message transcends time; it doesn’t matter whether the message was written on a papyrus or parchment scroll or by electrons in an electronic book, the message remains the same. But if you insist that it is only true when read from the parchment scroll, then you lose the meaning of the message, for you are also locked in time.

We have heard the Gospel message. We see the world around us and wonder how we shall ever find an answer. We know that we need to cast aside our childish ways and we know that we must, as Paul wrote, rejoice in the truth. But too many people are perhaps unwilling to do so. They are unwilling to leave the protective cocoon of a child and venture out into the world.

Hear again the words of Jeremiah that “I am just a boy, a child, and I cannot do a thing.” And God said to Jeremiah, as He says to each one of us today that He will give us the words to say, He will give us the strength to act, and He will give us the ability to make things truly right in this world.

You may hear these words today, words written two and three thousand years ago and say that there is nothing we can do. The world is what it is and we are powerless to change the world. Or we can say that we have found Christ in our hearts and we have let the Holy Spirit empower us and though we are like a small child today, we will grow in the Spirit and we will take the Gospel message, first spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth, out into the world. So, my friends, how shall you speak this day?

The Starting Point


Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 1 February 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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For those who are not aware, there is a football game tonight. Now, were it not for the endless hype that proceeds this game, I would not even know which teams were playing. But, nonetheless, I imagine that the coaches at this moment thinking about what they will say to the teams just before they go out to play.

Actually, in my mind, the speech the coaches will say tonight is pretty much the same speech every coach gives in every sport just before the last game. It will not be much of an emotional speech (not withstanding the films of Knute Rockne’s speeches to his Notre Dame teams that we sometimes see) but it will be thoughtful. The words differ but the meaning is the same; the team has reached the goal it set for itself back at the beginning of the season. The coaches won’t speak of winning because that is still in front of them. Rather, they will speak about the hard work, sweat and practice that each player went through at the start of the season.

If we forget how we got to a point, then it is very difficult to value the reaching of that point. You cannot have a goal to reach unless you have a starting point. The Gospel readings for the last two weeks have marked the starting of Jesus’ public ministry. Two weeks ago, Jesus did his first miracle at the wedding in Canaan but that was an unplanned event and not known beyond the few involved in the serving of the wine.

But Jesus’ actions in the temple were deliberate and planned. Jesus fully intended that everyone know who he was and what he intended to do. It was the starting point in his ministry. One would think that Jesus meant for it to be a good start; when doing something monumental or seemingly important, you would like to do it in your home town or in a setting where you are the most comfortable. All you have to do is look at how those seeking to be president make their announcement; most times, it is in their hometown or at a place to which they have a connection.

Jesus was from Nazareth and so it was natural that he come to the temple where he grew up (note that those present knew who He was and who His father on earth was). It is hard to say whether Jesus knew what the reaction of those there that day would be; but the commentaries clearly suggest that He knew that any reaction would not be positive.

From the establishment point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone be the Messiah. And as time went by, Jesus actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the powers that be that Jesus was an imposter and charlatan.

The reaction of Jesus’ announcement that His ministry was a fulfillment of the law was an interesting one. For the most part, it was a reaction that we might find amongst the populace of today. We react to any overtly Christian message with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation should react any differently?

And that is where the problem lies for us today? We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a shirt of hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan)  Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide, we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light that he has lit up with the glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into the fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. While we can determine the intensity of the light, we cannot escape the fact that we are part of the witness, for better or for worse.

As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work. We are like Nehemiah, who claimed that he was only a boy and was incapable of doing things. We are like Moses, who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah who ran away from the call of the Lord, only to be swallowed by the fish.

It has long been noted that

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Thins like this — and they are constantly happening — gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

We don’t want the call because we feel that we cannot handle the challenge and we don’t feel that we have the skills that are needed. But it does not matter what our skills might be or how well we are prepared that will determine our success; rather, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it is our attitude that determines our success.

If we do not use the gifts that God has given us as He gave them to us, that is with love, then our gifts are wasted and unused. God intended that the gifts that He gave us were to be given away in love and not as an expression of power or might. To use them in any other manner, to bolster our own ego or power would destroy the gifts.

Paul insisted that love alone can fulfill the role of empowerment for it was the opposite of ego. Love will succeed because it turns outward, whereas ego turns inward. And it is the outward expression of God’s love that people will see and experience.

We are presented today with a unique opportunity. Today can be a new starting point in our own lives and how we experience and use God’s love. It can be the starting point for someone you encounter this week who is searching for the peace found through Christ. We have the chance this day and throughout the coming days to reach out to all in this community, both those members not here today and those new to the community.

Yes, it is going to be difficult; no one said it would not be. Yes, it is going to be frustrating. Yes, we are going to be rejected and not just once but many times. But the very people who He grew up with rejected Jesus in His hometown. Perhaps it was one of his school friends who was the loudest to jeer Him. But Jesus moved on, going to Capernaum and the next stop in His mission.

It was a mission that would ultimately lead to death on the cross. But His death on the cross would be our starting point of our journey through a life free from sin and death. Jesus would leave Nazareth but he would be free to preach the Gospel, free to preach the Good News that would free the slaves and bring life to the dead. He would preach the Word to a world that might not necessarily want to hear it.

But we have heard the word and now, like Jeremiah, we are asked to take the word into the world. This is our starting point; this is where Jesus’ ministry through us begins. Jesus is calling us; are we ready to start?

UMH #398 — "Jesus Call Us"



“If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?”


Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 28 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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It has always amazed me how the consequences of one person’s actions can be far different from what the person intended. When Rosa Parks got on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that day in 1957 (I think it was), she never intended on starting the civil rights revolution of the 1960′s. All she wanted to do was sit down because her feet hurt and she was tired from a long day of working as a maid and housekeeper. But she chose to sit in the whites-only section of the bus, instead of making her way to the back of the bus where she was supposed to, by law, sit. Since she wouldn’t move, she was arrested. The boycott of the Montgomery bus line began as a protest, which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. into the nation’s eye and the rest we know.

I am not sure that Martin Luther intended on starting a new church when he nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. All he was interested in doing was making sure that people understood that what got one into heaven was not the purchase of religious tokens but their sincere belief and faith in Christ as their own personal Savior.

And I know that John Wesley never intended Methodism to become a denomination of its own. All Wesley wanted to do was revive the Church of England and bring it back to its stated mission, that of bringing hope to those without hope. Wesley never intended that what his brother, his friends and he did would eventually coalesce into an organized religion.

But the eighteenth-century church Wesley grew up in had fallen into decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. To say that the young John Wesley was zealous in his belief would be quite easily an understatement. But he believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than open sin. Accordingly, he labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and that of his colleagues openly provoked ridicule and earned them the nickname "Methodists".

The problem with the approach that these early Methodists used, their semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of gaining the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examinations, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them.

Following the disaster of his American experience, Wesley began to realize that it was not what he could for God that would gain his salvation, it was what God could and had done for him. This realization came that night at the prayer meeting at the house on Aldersgate Street when John Wesley came to know that Jesus Christ was his own personal Savior. In sharing this with Charles and the others, he found that Charles had also found the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was this spiritual transformation that brought them from law to grace and changed them from legalists to evangelicals. Their own personal experience gave them spiritual peace, the impulse for evangelism, and a sustaining motivation for addressing the evils of society.

It wasn’t a new religion that Wesley sought but a church that was responsive to the needs of the society, who answered the call of Christ to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy."

So what may you ask has this to do with me? No matter what Paul may write about the skills and talents that we all have, I don’t have the skills or talents to be a preacher or an evangelist or a healer or a missionary.

The thing that we have to realize is that you and I are not the first to say that we cannot do it. Nehemiah, in the Old Testament reading for today, said much the same thing.

Noah must have laughed when God asked him to build that ark. Noah lived in an area that got about one inch of rain a year so what was he supposed to think when God told him that it was going to rain for forty days and nights?

Moses’ first response to God when God told him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land was ask God to select someone else; "Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” (Exodus 4: 10 – 13) Moses argued that he couldn’t speak before the crowns but God told him to have his brother Aaron do all the public talking. Moses had to deal with the Pharaoh and with the communication between the people and God.

When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. And Jonah didn’t simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord trap us, He will not help us.

But God doesn’t call us to work without help. No one ever called by God to work for Him has done so alone. As God told Nehemiah, it will be by the spirit that the work can and will be accomplished.

It was by knowing that God loved him personally that John Wesley was able to transform the Methodists Societies from legalistic study groups into powerful agents of change. And it will be by the power of spirit and with the power of love as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that what this church does will get accomplished. Paul closed that passage by pointing out that it was by faith that we came to God but it will be through love that we are able to imitate Him and show others what God is all about.

When you think about it, you understand why the people of Nazareth were so upset with Jesus. They saw Him in terms of what they expected and what they wanted, not for who He was and what He could do for them.

When what we do is for our own gain or for how we will feel, it will leave us short. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and guide and direct us, there is no limit to what we can do. We are not asked to lead a new revolution or change the course of history. Of course, if by our actions that does happen, so much the better.

But the task before us is much smaller and much easier. It is simply to be a part of this church and this community. And to that end, we need a few volunteers. As has been noted in some of the bulletins for the past few weeks, we are still looking for a lay leader and lay member to the annual conference. The latter is perhaps the more important part of the duty for it requires that you attend the annual conference and represent this church at that meeting. Since my work situation may preclude my attending, it becomes doubly important that someone attend.

We are also still looking for someone to head the ministries related to education. Again, this is not a single person doing all the work but someone who can organize the work of many and see that it gets done. We also need at least two individuals to fill slots on the Pastor-Parish Relation Committee and the Nominations & Personnel Committee. Each job does require some work but with the Holy Spirit as your primary helper it would be very easy work.

The title of my sermon was very deliberate because there does come a time when you have to ask when the work will get done and who will do the work. Many have been called by God to do His work; not all have answered the call.

Some have simply been called to be saved, to know the warmth in their heart that Wesley knew so many years ago. Others have been called to join this church, to be a part of the efforts of bringing the Gospel to the world. And for others the call is to serve, to lead and help this church in the coming years.

If not know, when you will answer the call? And if you don’t answer the call, who will?



The Differing Voices of Truth


I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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This was my contribution for the 2009 Clergy Letter Project. (Updated on 14 February 2011)
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When I started thinking about this message, it was in the context of what was going on in Texas. I watch what goes on down there for a number of reasons. First, I have lived in Texas for two distinctive times in my life. Second, what happens in Texas often has a very definitive impact on what happens in the other states.

I have found growing up as I have in so many different states that many people do not have an understanding of what goes on outside the boundaries of their own state. They may assume certain things about people that aren’t necessarily true and they may assume that things are done in other states just like they are done in their own home state.

We might have saved ourselves a lot of grief over the past eight years if more people had known that the governor of Texas is not the most politically powerful position in the state. In the words of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, the Texas governorship is the weakest in the country (see As Alaska governor, Palin has more power than Bush in Texas). To quote Molly Ivins, one of my favorite writers,

The single most common misconception about George W is that he has been running a large state for the past six years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as “the weak-governor system.” You may think this is just a Texas brag, but our weak-governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else’s. Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Which is not to say it’s a piddly office. For one thing, it’s a bully pulpit. Although truly effective governors are rare in Texas history, a few have made deep impressions and major changes. Besides, people think you’re important if you’re the governor and in politics, perception rules.(Shrub, The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose)

But we assume that governors of the various states all work in much the same way and we figure that if one can govern one state, then they can govern a country.

But it is in terms of education that we need to know what is happening in Texas (and California as well). Because of their size and the number of textbooks used in those two states, these two states have an extraordinary larger say in the development of textbooks used in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools throughout the whole country. Publishers are reluctant to change the content of a textbook if such changes are not accepted in either state. In effect, the State Boards of Education in California and Texas are deciding the textbook policies of the other forty-eight states. It is possible that the other states may choose to select another textbook but if it is not on the California or Texas list, it is not likely to be marketed very heavily.

Presently, the Texas Board is debating whether to change a line in the state science curriculum requiring students to critique all scientific theories and to explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of each. Now, this line has been in the official curriculum for the past twenty years and most teachers have ignored it.

And to that end, there is an attempt this year to revise the curriculum by dropping those words and urging students to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using “empirical evidence.” (“In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate”) While this may seem like a meaningless debate about a few words in a state document that will get put in a file in a cabinet in an office somewhere, it is more than that. It is the tip of an argument that has occupied the minds of scientists and theologians for most of the past 150 years.

Social conservatives want scientific theories to be examined for their strengths and weaknesses so that they can attack Darwin’s theory of evolution. But, in making this argument, they are ignoring the basis upon which science operates and how theories are developed.

By definition, a theory is the best explanation for what has been observed and what might happen next. (See “The Processes of Science”) Theories are developed from observation and evidence; you cannot develop a plausible theory if you do not have the evidence and you cannot fiddle with the evidence in order to fit a theory (the problems with the orbits of the planets in terms of geo-centric solar system show this). What present social conservatives are trying to do is find a way to introduce “intelligent design” as a plausible and acceptable theory for the creation of life on this planet. But to make their theory work, they must either change the processes of science and eliminate the need for empirical evidence or suggest that the evidence can be changed to fit the theory.

The problem is that there are some teachers who teach theories as if they were facts and are often not willing to accept alternative ideas in their classroom. Critics of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists tend to take this refusal as some sort of academic totalitarianism. But the evidence suggests that the reason why many teachers teach evolution as a fact, impervious to change or discussion, is because they do not know what a theory is and are only following a discussion outlined for them in the textbook. Their refusal to hear alternative ideas is more a reflection of their own lack of knowledge and a rather inflexible curriculum. Right now, most teachers teach from the textbook because the textbook drives the tests and the tests are the items that determine the success of the teacher and the school system. And because society has stated that teachers and school systems are accountable for what the students learn and such accountability will be measured through tests, if it is not on the test or in the textbook, it will not be taught.

But it should be also pointed out that many of the secular fundamentalists who cry out against the influence of the sectarian fundamentalists in schools don’t have much in the way going for them either. They see religion in terms of the church that tried Galileo for the supposedly heretical belief that the Sun was the center of the solar system. These modern day secular fundamentalists see religion as only superstition and evidence of an unknowing society. They would rather we place our belief in rational thought and the truth of empirical evidence. But in doing so, they have created their own religion, the religion of scientism.

Rabbi Michael Lerner put it this way

“Science, however, is not the same as scientism — the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification — all these spiritual dimensions of life — are dismissed by the ‘scientistic’ worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.”

“Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives, therefore, insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.  (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060424/lerner)

We live in a world where we hear differing voices of truth, each insisting that the version of the truth is the only truth and all other versions are false. Those who claim to speak the truth refuse to acknowledge that others may see the truth as well and their refusal to allow dissent is as much a form of totalitarianism as they claim the opposition to be.

Dennis Overbye, in response to President Obama’s inaugural address (“Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy”), argued that science cannot operate in a dictatorship. Neither can religion. For both science and religion to survive, there must be an environment that fosters questions and free thought. If one’s belief cannot exist in such an environment, then it is probably not a very good belief system. Countless times in the Gospels, we read of how the authorities would not challenge Jesus for fear that He would show the weakness of their positions and thoughts.

Moses, in the passage from Deuteronomy for today, warns us about prophets who presume to speak for God when they are really speaking for themselves. The test of a true prophet, one who speaks for God, will come through the fulfillment of the prophet’s words, not through intellectual foresight masquerading as prophecy or coincidental fulfillment of the prediction.

And the fulfillment of the prophets was seen in the words, deeds, and actions of Jesus. When He began His mission, he brought a new vision into the world, one that questioned the voices of the establishment that had for so long controlled and dominated the people. Jesus challenged the people to see the truth for themselves. And as Mark told us in the Gospel reading for today, the very nature in which Jesus taught underscored the authority of His Word.

We live in a world of many voices, each claiming to tell us the truth. But the truth is a complex thing, not easily told and not easily learned. If our world is to be a world of either faith or reason and not both, then it will be an incomplete world and our knowledge of the truth will be limited and incomplete as well.

It is clear that this incompleteness is having a profound impact on our lives, far beyond a few days in a high school biology class. We are faced with problems of hunger, illness, violence, and repression both in this country and across the world. We seek new ideas but can only express old ones. We seek the answers to our problems in the past because we are more comfortable looking to the past and seeing where we have been than we are looking into the future and imaging where we could go.

As Jim Wallis noted (“The Wrong Question”) the crisis that we are in is not just a crisis of the economy or politics but a crisis of values. Shall we simply try to use the old ways and go back to business as usual or shall we try to find a way to avoid repeating the problems all over again sometime in the next generation? Michael Lerner put it this way,

[We need] to embrace a “new bottom line” in which corporations, social practices, government policies and individual behaviors are judged rational, efficient or productive not only if they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to treat others as embodiments of the sacred and to respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe. (“Verse and Voice” for 30 January 2009)

It is time that we begin using both our faith and reason to find the truth and to use the truth in the way it was meant to be used.

Our age abounds in information and technology, but it lacks godly conscience, Christ-like compassion, and Spirit-enabled commitment, the traits of our Methodist heritage. It can be said that the early Methodist church in England had an impact on the social condition of the day. The key to that early church’s influence was found in the traits of conscience, compassion and commitment.

If we are to be faithful to our age, then we must bring the riches of our heritage to our social responsibility, using what ever tools our age affords us that have moral integrity. The in-groups of our culture will not always approve of our agendas or our choice of methods. For that we will suffer their censure, as did Jesus in His day and Wesley in his. Yet both served many well by serving God most of all. That is what faithfulness to one’s age meant then, and it is what it means today. (”John Wesley, the Methodists, and Social Reform In England, Luke Keefer”)

On that night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago, twelve disciples gathered with their friends, their families, and their teacher to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. It was a meal framed in the truth of the past but it was a meal that would herald the truth of the future.

We gather together this day knowing the truth of that meal. We know that Jesus spoke the truth and was the truth and that his death on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and death.

And just as we know the truth through Christ, so too will others find the truth through what we say and do. When Christ spoke to us some two thousand years ago, he spoke of a hope, a promise, and a truth that was missing in the lives of the people. We can choose to be Christ’s voice in this world or we can let others be the voice. What shall it be?

The Power of Information


This is the message I presented on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 February 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28.

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When I first started working on today’s sermon, I was thinking in terms of computers, information technology, and how information is so much a part of our lives. But yesterday’s tragic event quickly made that approach mute. But it doesn’t change the idea that information and how we use information, the power of information, are so much a part of our lives and our understanding of God’s role in our lives.

The seven astronauts aboard the Columbia died in the pursuit of information. And it is at times like these when we find ourselves, with all the knowledge we have gained throughout the years, struggling to explain this event, not only to ourselves but also to those who depend on our judgement. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do at this point is understand that we don’t have all the information that we need, that we are at the beginning of an exploration. And despite our desires for quick and immediate answers, we will find that answers come only with time.

There are some things that we do know. We have grown rather blasé about the nature of space travel. We must remember that we are still in the infancy of space travel and that efforts like Star Trek or Star Wars are still works of fiction, possible in the far future but still fiction today. And for any manned space mission, the launch and landing of the spacecraft are still the most dangerous parts.

It is almost a certainty as well that we are going to be hearing many things, from the completely absurd to plausible. The most immediate thought of course is that it was a terrorist activity but that would mean that our security systems failed before the shuttle launched. And if there were any thoughts that it was shut down, remember that the shuttle was 39 miles above the earth, traveling at 18 times the speed of sound. Our own missile technology can’t hit objects that high moving at that speed, so I personally doubt that anyone else can.

We may also hear that this was a sign from God. But if it was a sign from God, what was He trying to tell us? Signs from God are clear and unmistakable and God does not take the lives of innocents for the wrongs of others. It brings us back to the question of understanding God and the nature of wisdom. We are wrong to assume that we can fully understand what God wants us to do. The nature of our own knowledge is incomplete and it would be futile to try and speak for God. But this much is certain, at least to me, if God did not want us to explore and push the nature of the universe, then why did He give us the brains and wherewithal to do so?

The need to explore, the need to find answers to our questions will only lead us to more questions. And as we gain more knowledge about the world around us, it only causes us to have more questions about the nature of the world. Sooner or later that means that questions about God and His role in this world will be asked. Some would say that we shouldn’t ask questions about God. But if we don’t ask such questions, it becomes harder for us to know who God is and what His role in our lives is, what it should be, and what it can be.

It should be noted that education has always been a tradition in Methodism. The early circuit riders were encouraged to read and study the Bible during those hours spent riding their horses between churches and assignments. This was an easy thing to do because the horse pretty well knew the way between stops and this gave time for the preacher to read and study in the saddle. I know that the encouragement still exists today though the method by which it is done, I hope, has changed.

John Wesley also saw the need for the children and adults coming to church to study the Bible. The first organized schools in England were Methodist Sunday schools, designed to provide basic literacy training for children and adults at a time when education was limited to the upper class and landed gentry of the time. Wesley understood that an illiterate populace would never advance in life. Nor could they even begin to understand the nature of the Bible and the meaning of salvation.

There is no limit nor can there be a limit to knowledge. For to put limits on what we know or can know can only limit what we do or can do. But we must be aware that in our desire to gain knowledge, we never lose sight of who we are and the limits that knowledge put on us. We must always be aware that when we feel our knowledge takes us beyond the scope of God, we are asking for trouble. The tower of Babel was the epochal story of mankind’s thinking that it had the capability to be equal to God.

We are in an age where information and the ability to use information is the key to power. One of my favorite sayings, one that I use as part of the screen saver on my computers comes from John, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8: 32)

So we seek the truth, in whatever forms it might be. But we must be reminded that the ability to use information and the power that comes with such knowledge must always be tempered by the fact that it can be abused. There are those who will be quick to say they have the only true understanding; that they speak for the Lord. But the Old Testament reading for today, in verse 15, reminds us that one does not become a true prophet by self-will or desire but because they were raised up by the Lord.

Earlier, in chapter 13 (verses 1 – 5), the writer of Deuteronomy wrote

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods (god you have not known) and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeem you from the land of slavery’ he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

This was the same basis upon which it was written in today’s Old Testament reading, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18: 20) In short, the Lord warns us to beware of false prophets, those who would speak in the name of the Lord but only seek gains for themselves.

I think that the difference between the false prophets of old, and some of the newer ones as well, is that they are not really teachers. Jesus was first and foremost a teacher. Forty-two percent of Mark’s gospel deals with some mention of teaching. In almost every instance, the reports of such teaching are accompanied with reports of astonishment and amazement. But that was because the people of Israel had never encountered a teacher who did not rely on his own past experiences or the past experiences of others for their own knowledge. Jesus had no need to do so for his authority, his understanding came from who He was and is and will be. His teaching was designed to help people understand who God was and is and what God meant for each of us. His teaching, his knowledge of the world was never designed to be an exercise in personal power. The demon in the Gospel reading for today knew who Jesus was but Jesus would not acknowledge that testimony because it came from a disreputable source. Mark noted that this miracle brought a great deal of recognition for Jesus.

Mark contrasts the people who received Christ with the Pharisees and rulers who worked against Him. The sad truth is that too many times the religious of the world do more to keep people from Christ.

I think this was part of Paul’s problems with the Corinthians. It appears from what Paul wrote that many in the church at Corinth saw knowledge as more than wisdom. The statement that “we know that we all have knowledge” appears to have been a slogan used by certain Corinthian believers as an arrogant statement against weaker Christians. Those weaker Christians believed that eating food offered to idols was a sin. Others believed that such concerns were ridiculous. They argued that if the idols were worthless, then the meat offered to them was fine to eat. Paul agreed that such food was not contaminated but he wanted the knowledgeable Christians not to flaunt their point of view.

Paul’s statement that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” is one of his five attacks on the arrogance of some of the members of the church. These individuals belittled the weaker members with their knowledge. Paul wanted them to know that they were missing the point; instead of belittling someone, they should have been using their knowledge to help others.

Paul pointed out that the more knowledgeable members were correct in their views about idols. But that wasn’t the point. If those who felt that eating the food offered to idols was sinful saw someone eating that food, then they might be tempted to eat it anyway. This would be in clear violation of their conscience. And to go against one’s conscience was, in fact, sinning. By their knowledge the stronger ones caused the weaker ones to stumble. Paul exhorted the strong believers to show love to the weaker ones by refraining from offending them.

The most difficult thing about knowledge is that others are always involved in the pursuit of it. There must be someone there to help us, in some way, find the knowledge that we seek. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But as Paul pointed out, there are problems when such knowledge is abused. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were meant to remind them that their gifts came from God and were meant to be used in ways that unified the church and spread the Gospel.

It is the Gospel message that frees us. As Jesus said, when we seek the truth and find it, we will be set free. We are reminded again that the pursuit of freedom is not always easy, nor does it come cheaply. Seven individuals seeking more knowledge that can be used to provide a better life have given their lives in that pursuit and we mourn their loss. But I, like others, hope that their loss will not put a damper on the efforts to better know this world and this universe. We should not stop our search simply because there has been a tragedy. To do so would dishonor the memory of all that were lost in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is through the power provided by the information that we gain in our exploration that drives us onward. Our efforts to better know this world should never end, for to do so puts an end to our existence. We have come to know God through our searches; and through our searches our knowledge of God, His role in our lives, and our role in this world becomes stronger. That is the ultimate power of information.



Truth In Labeling


This is the message I presented on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28

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The Scriptures for this week come at what I think is an interesting time. Last Tuesday, the Iowa caucuses were held and this coming Tuesday the New Hampshire primary will be held; the long-awaited campaign for the President of the United States 2000 will finally have arrived. Though I am not sure that this campaign did not start shortly after the completion of the election in 1996.

Now, for all the complaining about the system and how we choose our leaders, it still comes down to the fact that our system of electing leaders through essentially a popular vote has lasted over 200 years and that countries who have tried similar approaches have failed. And without belaboring the point, let me add that if you have the chance to vote and you do not use that chance, then you really can’t complain about the outcome of the election.

The main point that I saw in the Scriptures for today was about leadership. The one thing that disturbs me about the election process is that leaders today will not take difficult stands. One definition of a professional is one who does things even when they do not feel like them. In other words, a professional is not blown about by the winds of the moment. Professionals stay focused on the successful accomplishment of their mission, and do the difficult things.

Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. He sensed danger there, and he was right. However, Jesus knew that it was part of the larger plan. So, he “set his eyes towards Jerusalem” (Isaiah 50: 7) knowing what the consequences of his actions would be.

It was that resolve and that focus on the task at hand that the people at the temple in the Gospel reading today saw. As the Gospel reading pointed out, he taught from the Scripture as one having authority, and not as the scribes. It was that same authority that was spoken of in the Old Testament reading for today.

The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the prophets that would follow Moses. As Moses is about to leave, the people of Israel are told that another spokesman will take his place and that one will follow for each generation, with Jesus being the ultimate fulfillment.

But caution is given that the people should listen to what the prophets have to say. For if the prophet presumes to speak of things that God has not commanded them to say, they will be held accountable. In other words, don’t say what the people want to hear, say what it is that God wants you to say.

In the reading from Corinthians, Paul is speaking about the eating of certain foods. The Corinthians had written to Paul concerning what to do about meats that had been cooked on pagan altars. The leftover meat was either sold at the public meat market, or eaten by the priests, or the person who brought the offering and his friends at a feast at the temple. Some Christians felt that if they ate such meat, they participated in pagan worship and thus compromised their testimony to Christ. Other Christians in the Corinthian community did not feel this way. As Paul pointed out, there is only true God and so foods that were sacrificed to a minor god, who is really nothing, could be eaten. But Paul also pointed out that, in exercising their freedom to eat this meat, that the Corinthians not become a stumbling block to those who felt that such an action was sinful. Paul said that he, himself, would not eat meat sacrificed to idols if his actions would cause someone else to sin. I am sure that stand was not well taken by those Corinthians who wanted Paul to take a stronger stand but it was the proper thing to do.

Taking a stand that is different from the desires of the people is often the mark of a true leader. It must have been difficult for Jesus to say no to people. The whole essence of his being seemed to say yes. But there were times when he had to say no. He said no to the young man wanted to follow him but who was also not willing to let go of his earthly riches. He said no to his mother and family when they tried to interrupt his teaching. He said no to Judas about turning to politics. He said no to the temptations in the wilderness. And he said no many times to himself, “No, I will not run from this. I will drink the cup that has been placed before me.”  (John 18: 11)

Leadership has never been something for others to do. We are all leaders in some way or another. Some day we may be faced with a difficult choice and the question will arise as to what we should do. Often times, we make the choice on whether we shall stand alone or follow the crowd. But when we think of the choices that Jesus had to make, that his choices gave us a freedom we would otherwise not have; then our choices become quite evident.

Shall I follow Jesus today? That is the only choice you have to consider.



What Are You Going To Say? And When Are You Going To Say It?


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.
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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about speaking out against oppression. I challenged everyone then to do the same. (1) Today, the questions must be “What are you going to say?” and “When are you going to say it?”

It isn’t so much that there is a war in Iraq that threatens to take the heart and soul out of our future. There is fighting in Somalia, there is genocide in Darfur, there is fighting in the Holy Land. How many other wars or skirmishes take place each day that don’t make the news?

There is still poverty. New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina. I think we were lucky that there were no major hurricanes this past year. For if there had been any and the damage from those hurricanes was even half the damage of 2005, then we might have completely forgotten that awful summer and early fall of 2005. Then where would we be?

Perhaps it is because we are so detached from the problems that dominate this world. For many of us, the war in Iraq is only an item on the evening news show. For many of us, there is little impact; we do not see the dead coming home (in what is an excellent manipulation of the news media). Can you imagine where we might have been forty years ago if Lyndon Johnson and, then, Richard Nixon, had controlled the news output from Viet Nam like President Bush has done with Iraq? We might still be involved in Southeast Asia still today.

We choose to ignore the homeless in this country. The lead story on any local news item should be the opening of another Habitat for Humanity house, but I am willing to bet that most people don’t even know that such a home was built in their neighborhood.

We choose to ignore poverty. We would rather have heroes that make more money in a day or a month than many people make in a lifetime. We would rather hear preachers tell us how God means for us to be rich. We are more like the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus when he was told to sell all he can and follow Jesus. We should be more like Zacchaeus who returned the money that he had cheated out of people four fold. (2)

While we make songs out of 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 4 through 7, we ignore the words that Paul wrote in verses 1 – 3. As long as we are centered on what the world can do for us, as long as we are centered on what we can get out of the issue at hand, nothing that we do will matter.

Our Christianity, if you can call it that, is no better than the Christianity that drove John Wesley to seek reformation in the Church of England. Neither John Wesley, his brother Charles, nor his friends ever imagined that they would create a new religion. All they wanted to do was fix the one they had.

But the 18th century Church of England that they all grew up in was in decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. It would be quite easy to say that John Wesley was as zealous in his beliefs concerning the church as was Saul in his persecution of the early church. Wesley believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than any imaginable sin.

Accordingly, Wesley labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and his methods openly provoked ridicule and gave birth to the name that we so proudly wear today, “Methodist”. But, as even John Wesley admitted, the semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of what they sought, the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them. All that they did, they were doing for themselves and not for others; Paul would probably have said that there was no love in their work.

It was not until that night in the prayer meeting in the house on Aldersgate Street that John Wesley understood that it was not what he did in the name of God that gained salvation; it was what God had done and would do for him.

It was this transformation that brought the Methodist movement, through John and Charles Wesley’s own spiritual transformation, from law to grace and changed it from a legalistic viewpoint to an evangelical viewpoint.

This transformation gave the early Methodists the spiritual peace that they had so long sought; it gave them the impulse for evangelism and a sustaining motivation to address the evils of society. It has long been said that England did not suffer the violent revolution that occurred in France during that same period because of the Methodist revival that occurred.

It wasn’t a new church that John Wesley sought to create. All his life he would remain a minister in the Church of England. All he wanted was a church that was responsive to the needs of society, a church whose members answered the call of Christ to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy, and free the oppressed.”

But the response of that 18th century, much like the response of the church today, was anger and resentment. In the Gospel reading for today (3), it seems as if Jesus’ actions in the synagogue that day were deliberate and planned. His reading of the passage from Isaiah, that was the Old Testament reading for last week, was the point where He would begin His ministry. Jesus wanted everyone to know who He was and what He intended to do.

Jesus might have hoped that such as announcement that the prophecies of old were filled would have been a good thing. It was made in the synagogue where He had grown up (remember that those present knew who He was and who His earthly father was). But from the establishment’s point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone the Messiah. And as time went by, His actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the establishment that Jesus was nothing more than an imposter and a charlatan.

The reaction of the people that day some two thousand years ago was to be expected. We do almost the same thing today. We react negatively to almost any overtly Christian message; we view such messages with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation would react any differently than we would?

We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we do not need to do anything. We hear the call but do not understand that it is a call for action, a call to move outward.

We are like Nehemiah who claimed that he was only a boy and incapable of doing great things. (4) We are like Moses who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah, who upon hearing the call from God, tried to run away only to be swallowed by a fish.

Like Noah, we wonder if we can do what we are asked. God commanded Noah to build an ark because He was going to make it rain for forty days and nights. But this was an area that received at most one inch of rain a year. Surely Noah thought God was kidding. Moses insisted that he could not do what God asked him to do because he could not speak in public without stuttering. God said that Aaron, Moses’ brother, would do the speaking. Moses would deal with the Pharaoh. And God told Nehemiah that He, God, would provide the words and the thoughts that he, Nehemiah, would need.

No one ever called by God has had to do God’s work by themselves. We are presented with a unique opportunity today. This can be the day that we experience and use God’s love in our lives. This can be the week in which a single encounter might help someone find Christ, simply because they have seen Christ in our lives.

It is no doubt going to be difficult to do this. No one said that it would not be. It is going to be frustrating and we can anticipate many, many rejections. After all, the very people that Jesus grew up with were the first to reject Him. It was probably his school classmates that were the loudest to jeer Him. They were not willing to hear the message.

But Jesus was not alone that day. He had been empowered by the Holy Spirit and He would leave Nazareth that day and go to Capernaum and begin His mission, the one He announced to his friends and family in Nazareth. He would preach the Gospel message, the message that would free the oppressed and bring new life to the spiritually dead. He would preach a message that would bring hope to a world that had lost hope.

We have heard the same message. We have heard from Paul that we will not do it alone but that through the Holy Spirit we will receive the gifts that will allow us to take the message out into the world. Now, you are asked, “what are you going to say?” and “when are you going to say it?”
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(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/01/14/no-i-cant-and-neither-should-you/
(2) Luke 19: 8
(3) Luke 4: 21 – 30
(4) Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10