“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

This will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin for Fishkill United Methodist Church this Sunday, 3 February 2019 (4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C)


This is not the question that Jesus asked His disciples, but rather the question each of us asks those we meet.

When Jesus spoke before the people in the synagogue in Nazareth and said that He had come to fulfill the Law, the people did not believe Him.  After all, Jesus was only the carpenter’s son and, by inference, incapable of being the Messiah.  A little while later, Philip would tell Nathaniel that they had found the Messiah and that it was Jesus of Nazareth.  To which Nathaniel replied, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Throughout the ages, people have always identified people by where they were from, their race, their gender, their economic status, and their religion.  But it always seemed as if it were done with the assumption that those who are somehow different from us are less worthy.

On August 8, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of one day when all the children of this country (and the world) would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

A few years later, as I prepared to become a classroom teacher, I watched a video in which a sculpture spoke of finding what was in the stone and not trying to make something from the stone.

God told Isaiah that He knew Isaiah before Isaiah was and what he would do when he grew up.  God’s words apply to each one of us and all whom we would meet.

But none of this can ever happen if we hold onto our old ways, the ways of exclusion and ignorance.  And, as Paul told the Corinthians, unless we have Christ in our lives, if we do not love each other, we shall never give up our old way, no matter what we may say or do.

But in accepting Christ, we cast aside the old ways and begin a new life, a life in which each person can reach their own goals, not limited by what society may say or do.                               ~~Tony Mitchell

Who Are We?

A Meditation for 31 January 2016, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), based on Jeremiah 4: 1 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30

There is something rather Calvinistic (if there is such a word) about the Old Testament reading for today. If God does know me in the womb, does that mean that our lives are laid out before we are born and nothing we say or do changes the outcome? Or does God see in each of us the untapped potential that we all have? I, of course, would prefer the latter, for that gives us the opportunity to do the work that we have to do.

Standing before the people of Nazareth in the synagogue that Sabbath day some two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke of the prophecy being fulfilled. He knew what He had to do and He most definitely knew where it would lead Him. Make no mistake, if Jesus had not gone to the Cross, the narrative of life today would have been different. The difficulty that Christ had then and each one of us has today is that society defines who we are before we are born and places limits on what it is we can do based on where we were born, our race, our gender, our economic status. And when we placed limits on anyone, it becomes very difficult for anyone to see the potential you have.

If, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there is no love behind our actions, then all is for naught. If we, as a society and as a people, do not have love for others in our society, then we are in effect shutting them out of the future. Our love for others has to be such that each person meets his or her greatest potential.

If, however, we live in a society based on our fears, our bias, and our ignorance, then we are no better than those who heard Jesus speak that first Sabbath and ask how it is that the local carpenter’s son could say such things. And our reaction today, sadly, would be the same as it was then, where because of our fears, our bias, and our ignorance we destroy or limit those who have the potential for good.

Our call today is very simple. If we say that we are Christians, then there is love in our actions. We do things, perhaps feed the hungry, heal the sick, or free the oppressed, not because it will get us something but rather because we love those people and do not like seeing them sick, hurt, hungry, or oppressed. And if we merely say that we are Christians but then do nothing, then our words and actions ring hollow and false. And in today’s world, it is quite easy to hear hollow words and see false action.

The season of Lent is two weeks away; the call for repentance and the beginning of new life, a life in Christ is two weeks away. But we must begin today. We must work for the revival of the Holy Spirit and for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and the lives of all those we touch, either personally or peripherally.

We must speak out against injustice and repression because Jesus spoke out against it. We must help people get healthcare and housing, not because it is the political thing to do but because the prophecy calls for it.

And when someone happens to ask us who we are, we can say that we are followers of Christ, who came to this world to save us from slavery to sin and death, to a live free and eternal.

My closing question this day is a very simple one, who are you?

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.


This has been edited since it was first posted.


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.


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.


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?

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.
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?”
(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