Generations


This is the message that I will be giving at Fishkill United Methodist Church this coming Sunday (24 June 2018 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost [B]).  Services begin at 10 and you are always welcome.


Despite the title, there are no references to the Starship Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, or, even though I have ties to Iowa, James T. Kirk in this message.

The last time I stood in this pulpit and delivered the message, I predicted that my next visit would be on October 13, 2019 (1).  Clearly, I don’t have much of a career as a prophet.  But as I said then, it is sometimes very difficult to imagine what the future will be.

There are, of course, a few people who believe that the future is fixed and when it is all done, they will enter Heaven and the rest of us will be left behind. But this begs the question, if we are doomed, if the path to salvation and Heaven is to be denied to us, then why did God send Jesus into this world?

Saying that the future is fixed, saying that we have no say in its outcome takes humankind, takes us, out of the equation.  If the future is fixed, then life has no meaning.

Now, for some, not having to do anything seems like a good idea; they don’t have to think about things and they can do whatever they please.  But one only needs to read the Book of Ecclesiastes and the other books of wisdom in the Old Testament to know life becomes hopeless if it has no meaning.

This is part of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians.  A life without meaning is closed and encompassing, no matter how free and unlimited one might feel.  A life in Christ, which some might see as enclosing and restrictive; in Paul’s words opens the world.  It gives us options we never knew.

But an open future is both frightening and a challenge.  It is frightening because it requires that we be involved.  And that is why it is a challenge.

In 1962, Robert Kennedy wrote (2),

The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present.

During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Kennedy said (3),

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment [- – -]

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is [ . . .] neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.

Albert Einstein once remarked,

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.  It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” (4)

When David prepared for his battle with Goliath, Saul outfitted him with the traditional armor of an Israelite soldier.  But David could not move while encased in all the armor of an Israelite soldier and so he cast it aside, trusting in his own skills and abilities.

David used what he knew rather than rely on traditional methods of battle to defeat Goliath.  It is to Saul’s credit that he let David use the skills that he, David, had and not have him use the traditional approach, a lesson many leaders have failed to learn even today (5).

My mother, who would have been 94 last week, was born and raised in rural North Carolina.  She was, as the saying goes, Southern born and Southern bred.

My father, who would have been 98 next month, was a career Air Force officer and the son of a career Army officer.  As an officer and an engineer, there was a certain degree of certainty to life.

Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression.  Most assuredly, those backgrounds shaped their views of the world.

As the children of an officer and of a mother who worked in the Pentagon, my brothers, sister and I grew up with the unstated mantra to never rock the boat or question those in higher positions.

In their own ways, sometimes not so clear, my parents expressed their love for us.

But I can tell you that I tested that love.  I may not have rocked the boat, but I certainly rowed too fast and I most definitely questioned the “powers that be.”

When I was in college in the late 60s and early 70s, I was active in the anti-war movement, something that my parents were not exactly thrilled with.  For Mother’s Day in 1969, I gave my mother a necklace with a pendant on it that read “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” (6)

After my mother received the necklace, she wrote me a very stern letter expressing her disapproval of my extra-curricular political activities. But she also wrote that she would keep the necklace because I was her son and she loved me, a thought that would echo throughout my life (7).

My parents’ displeasure with my anti-war activities was exceeded only by their disapproval with my civil rights activities.  I shall not read from the pages of history what my grandmother said to my parents or what my parents thought when they were told that I was the only white student to participate in the Black Students Association sit-in of the administration building at Truman State University during the spring of 1969 (8).

But things change.

When my mother was in her late 60’s, her church, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church of Bartlett, TN, went on a mission trip to St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean.

This mission trip had two objectives, continue construction on a school building and offer dental care to the people, especially the children, of the area.  My mother went as the DH for the dental team.

I believe that some of her friends, upon hearing this, said something to the effect, “Oh my god!  Virginia is going on a mission trip!  Doesn’t she know how old she is!”

Understand that trips like these cannot take much in the way of medicines, especially pain killers; I will pause for a few seconds so that you can let that sink in.  And that is why my mother went.

After each child completed their dental treatment, they were often hurting and crying.  As the DH, the “designated hugger”, my momma, “Granny” would hug and comfort each child.  She used the skills developed over many years of being a mother, a grandmother, and great-grandmother, only in a different setting.

A few years after the mission trip to St. Vincent, my mother decided she wanted to become a Gospel singer.  My brothers, sister, and I produced a CD with the music of her favorite songs that she could take with her when she went to sing for, as she put it, the old folks in the Memphis area.

One Sunday, she said she wanted to sing at Pleasant Grove UMC, one of two rural churches north of Memphis, where I was part of the preaching team.

Pleasant Grove was also the church where, a few years later, my wife Ann would first hear me preach.  Now, my momma knew the one thing that I had neglected to tell Ann.  When she sang at Pleasant Grove UMC that Sunday, my momma was the only white woman attending the service (9).

God never asks you to do something you couldn’t already do and He never sends you to a new place alone.  The one constancy in every disciple’s life is the Presence of God, offering comfort and protection. Giving hugs and singing Gospel music were things my momma always did.  God just wanted her to give the hugs to children and sing her Gospel songs in other parts of God’s Kingdom.

There is that moment in the Gospel reading when you know that the disciples are truly and genuinely afraid.  They understood the Sea of Galilee was susceptible to rapid and severe changes in the weather.  As we would be, they were clearly on the watch, but each storm is different, and one cannot easily prepare for every possibility.

And yet, with a few words, Jesus calmed the storm and the seas.  How then can we be afraid to take on the tasks before us?

But what are those tasks?  What lies before us?

In 1980, at the end of his television series, “Cosmos:  A Personal Journey”, Carl Sagan paraphrased the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah said that the people of Israel had come to a crossroads and were trying to decide which road to take.  But the people would not take the road that lead to righteousness, saying that it was a false alarm and that Jeremiah’s warning did not concern them (how appropriate today are words written almost three thousand years ago) (10).

Sagan pointed out that we have created the technology that allows us to develop weapons of mass destruction that could not only destroy the people and nations of this planet, but this planet as well.  But he also noted that these same skills and technology could be used to explore and expand our understanding of the universe and humankind.

We have come to those crossroads and it seems as if we have taken the wrong path.

We see a world where the God of material things is worshiped more than the One True God.  We seem to have forgotten that we are tenants, temporary residents of this planet and not its owners.  We are the stewards of this planet and we are not doing too well with that task

We see prejudice and hatred on the rise.

We spend more on destruction than we do on construction.  War, violence, and discord have become the norm.

I fear we have lost our creative impulse.  And without that creative impulse, we see a world in which there is no future.

We see people lost in society, seeking answers to questions that trouble their souls but who cannot find a place where those questions can be answered.

Their first inclination, as it has been for generations, is to seek God.  But where is God?

Many churches today (individually and denominationally) seem to reflect the religious establishment of Jesus’ time, more concerned with the preservation of personal power than with a genuine concern for the people, both inside and outside the church walls.

Remember this.  The people healed by Jesus were ritually unclean.  Under religious law, they were barred from entering the Temple, barred from being with God.  When Jesus healed them, they became clean and were able to enter the Temple and reestablish their connection with God.

It should also be noted that whenever Jesus touched an unclean person, or an unclean person touched Him, He became ritually unclean and, thus, was unable to enter the Temple.  I invite you to see the irony in that.

Instead of rejoicing, the religious establishment grew angry because Jesus did what only they, the establishment, felt they had the power to do.  The religious establishment also could not accept that Jesus socialized with individuals that they would never allow to enter the Temple.  The establishment created rules and laws about religious and societal behavior and Jesus routinely violated every one of those laws, rules, and regulations.

We have proclaimed that we are His disciples.  We have declared that we will follow Jesus no matter where the road leads, no matter the cost, and no matter what society might say.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, it is not an easy path.

We are the spiritual descendants of those in that boat that day some two thousand years ago.  The presence of Christ is in our lives.

We are the spiritual descendants of those who gathered together in Jerusalem for Pentecost.  The presence of the Holy Spirit is in our lives.

Two thousand years ago, our spiritual ancestors went out into the world and began to tell everyone they met about Jesus Christ.  It can be very frightening to travel into a world where what lay beyond the horizon was unknown.  Yet empowered by the Holy Spirit and with the presence of God, that is where they went and what they did (11).

By word and deed, our spiritual ancestors spread the Good News, teaching about Jesus, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and freeing the oppressed.

As United Methodists, we are the spiritual descendants of Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm, Philip Otterbein, and John Wesley.

Early Methodists found ways to feed the hungry and established free health care clinics to provide medical care.  Because people were denied basic financial services and put into jail because they could not pay their bills, the early Methodists created the first credit unions.  Because children worked in the mines and factories six days a week, the early Methodists created Sunday schools to educate them and their parents.  Because of the efforts of the Wesleyan Revival, some historians think this is the reason England did not experience a bloody revolution like the French revolution of the same period (12).

Early Methodists were considered threats to the organized/established church.  Our spiritual ancestors were outsiders and trouble makers! (13).

John Wesley and the early Methodists were barred from preaching in the Anglican churches in England and the Episcopal Churches in early America for going against the established view.  Barred from preaching in the Anglican and Episcopal churches, Wesley and the other early Methodists went into the fields, the mines, and the factories to bring the Gospel message to the people.

Here in the United States, Methodists were prohibited by law from building their own churches.  So, they built meeting houses and chapels instead.

The Evangelical United Brethren church, the church through which I came to know Christ, was the merger of two other denominations developed by Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm, and Philip Otterbein.  All three had connections and ties to the Methodist Church that was just beginning in the early days of this country and helped spread the Gospel to the German speaking people who had come to America in the early 18th century.

It was the distrust of the English-speaking members of the new Methodist movement in this country for the German-speaking individuals seeking to become Methodists that lead Otterbein, Boehm, Albright to form their own churches, churches which very much adhered to the Wesleyan model.  I cannot help but think how this would have played out today.

Because so many of the members of these churches spoke German and followed the Methodist model, they were often called “German Methodists” (14).

In 1761, Otterbein would hear Martin Boehm preach and proclaimed “Wir sind Bruder!” (“We are brothers!)  This was a statement that they shared a common belief in God, a belief that reached across traditional boundaries.  Boehm would be later excommunicated from the Mennonite Church for his association with individuals and activities outside the Mennonite community.  This included giving land to Pennsylvania Methodists on which to build a religious building. (15).

We are the spiritual brothers and sisters of the members of Zion Pilgrim Methodist Episcopal Church, the church that was just down the road from us on Baxtertown Road.  Zion Pilgrim was a station on the Underground Railroad and members of that church risked their own freedom to help others find their own freedom (16).

The two white roses on the altar and the one that I wear in my hat are the symbols of the White Rose movement.  We are spiritual cousins of the White Rose movement, the Christian student movement in Germany during World War II, which along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church (notethis is not the Confessing Movement!), rose in opposition to the Nazis and the church establishment that put the state before God (17).

We are about to begin a new chapter in the history of Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Each generation writes its own pages in the book of history.

If the generations who came before us, who gave us our traditions, our legacy, and our heritage, found ways to reach out to the people of the community, to see past traditional and establishment views, to speak and act against oppression in all its forms, what will our own history be?  What will be written about this generation on the pages of history 50 or 100 years from now?

The decisions we make today will shape the legacy we leave for the next generation.  But, as Paul wrote, we must decide today.

Yes, this is going to be tough but no tougher than what those who proceeded before us endured.  And what we do today will make it easier for those who follow us.

It is very easy to do nothing; that is a choice that we can make.  But as Paul wrote, it is a choice which limits what one does.  It is a choice which offers no future.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (18):

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.

Not to speak is to speak.

Not to act is to act.

To choose to walk with Christ opens the world before us and helps us see a bright and better future.

God is calling us today!  He is calling you today!

God is calling us, He is calling you, not to learn new skills, but use the skills we already have.

God is calling us, He is calling you today to continue bringing the Good News, through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions, to people we may not know and in places we may never have imagined.

God is calling you today?  Will you answer the call?


Notes

  1. “What Does The Future Hold?”
  2. https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/the_future_is_not_a_gift_it_is_an_achievement
  3. The Day of Affirmation quotes comes Senator Edward Kennedy’s eulogy of his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. They are attributed to the Dave of Affirmation speeches Senator Kennedy gave during his trip to South Africa in 1966 – http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html
  4. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1799-the-world-as-we-have-created-it-is-a-process
  5. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/post-pentecost-2018-worship-planning-series/june-24-2018-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b/fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-2018-preaching-notes
  6. That this pendant is still available today at “Another Mother for Peace” speaks to how well we have dealt with the concept of war and peace over the past fifty years.
  7. adapted from “Defining Love”
  8. see “Side by Side” and “Side by Side”
  9. adapted from “A Celebration of Life”
  10. Jeremiah 6: 16 – 20

“Go stand at the crossroads and look around.  Ask for directions to the old road,

The tried-and-true road. Then take it.  Discover the right route for your souls.

But they said, ‘Nothing doing.  We aren’t going that way.’

I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm.

But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’

And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’

And, ‘Pay attention, Earth!  Don’t miss these bulletins.’

I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me.

They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching.

What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places?

Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure.  Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”

  1. “Seeing Around the Corner” and “What Is Around the Corner?”
  2. Methodist Revival and the non-English Revolution

https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/evangelical-revival-in-england-11630228.html

https://christianheritagefellowship.com/the-prayer-meeting-that-saved-england/

http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/367 disputes this notion

http://www.apricotpie.com/lucy-anne/how-methodist-movement-prevented-british-revolution

https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/revival-and-revolution/

  1. First expressed in “We Are Outsiders!”
  2. When I was looking for the phrase “German Methodists”, I came across a subset of American Methodist churches called the German Methodist Episcopal church. These were essential Methodist Episcopal churches for German speaking individuals in the early 1800’s (as far as my quick read of the notes could tell).  Some of these churches were in Texas, which did have a high German immigrant population.  Sadly, during the 1840 division of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the formation of the Methodist Episcopal South, there was a similar split of the German Methodist Episcopal church and the formation of the German Methodist Episcopal South church.
  3. Evangelical United Brethren Church

Jacob Albright

http://united.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/albright-intro.pdf

Martin Boehm

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/mennonites-reconnect-with-umc-founder

https://ub.org/about/boehm-otterbein/

Philip Otterbein

http://www.ucc.org/about-us_hidden-histories-2_philip-william-otterbein-and

  1. Zion Pilgrim Methodist Church and the Underground Railroad

http://nyacknewsandviews.com/2014/02/baxtertowns-zion/

https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/14000845.htm

http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2013/12/11/dutchess-county-digging-for-an-underground-railroad-station/

  1. The White Rose and the Confessing Church

http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/revolt/whiterose.html

https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/christians-against-nazis/

  1. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/601807-silence-in-the-face-of-evil-is-itself-evil-god

“To Honor The Future”


I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.

That I am a chemist by training and vocation is a matter of a particular set of circumstances.  As I will relate in a few moments, it was a choice made that was based, figuratively, on where I was in time and what I had done in the past.

Now, I have often wondered what my major might have been if I had not had to make the decision at the beginning of my college studies to be a chemistry major.  In the words of a Rod Steward song from a few years ago, if I had known then what I know today, I might have been a mathematics and computer science major.  As it turned out, when I graduated from college in 1971 I had a mathematics minor to go with my chemistry major and more hours in computer science than the college offered (in part, because I took some courses at other colleges while home during the summer).

But computers in 1971 were still essentially people who performed mathematical calculations but with the aid of big (and I mean big) calculating machines.  They were not the small desktop setups that we have today that have more computing power than the computers on the Apollo spacecrafts that went to the moon.  And the uses of the computer today are hardly what many people imagined back then.  All one has to do is consider the following statements:

  • In 1943, Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • In 1949, Popular Science magazine predicted that computers in the future would weigh 1.5 tons.
  • In 1957, the editor in charge of business books for Prentice-Hall stated that data processing was a fad that wouldn’t last a year.
  • An engineer in the Advanced Computing Systems of IBM asked in 1968 what good was the microchip.
  • Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977 that there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.
  • When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began working on what was to become the Apple computer, they went to Atari and said, “Hey, we got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us?  Or we’ll give it to you.  We just want to do it.  Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.”  And they said, “No.”  So we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, “Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t even gone to college yet.”
  • In 1981, Bill Gates proclaimed that 640K ought to be enough for everyone.  (see “Some Interesting Predictions”)

Each of these “prophecies” was made with a consideration for the current situation and what had transpired in the past.  But prophets don’t necessarily see the future; they merely tell the truth as they see it.  They point out the way things are, not the way people want things.  They can warn of dangers ahead if things do not change.; they do point out what they think is wrong.  (From “Should We Explain This?”)

To see the future requires that we understand the past.  But we have to be prepared to move from the present into the future, not merely look contemplatively at the past and say that is where we need to be now.  One of the first quotes that I collected was one by George Bernard Shaw which was also used by Robert Kennedy in the fateful presidential campaign of 1968,

Some men see things as they are and say why – I dream things that never were and say why not.”

While my studies and my inclination at the time would have dictated that I become an industrial chemist; my own decisions lead me into the chemistry classroom.  It may be that it was never part of the path that I chose to walk in 1966 but in walking that path I was able to do other things.  Even now, I find myself delving into the history of chemistry, especially when faith and science overlap; areas I would never have thought of almost fifty years ago.

I have discovered in the course of things that Robert Boyle, who is considered the father of modern chemistry, and Joseph Priestley, one of the discoverers of oxygen, were also intense men of faith and that their writings in the area of faith were as numerous as their scientific writings.  Coupled with the fact that Isaac Newton, more known as a mathematician and physicist, was also a chemist and also intensely interested in matters of faith and religion, I see a new path lying before me that results from the intersection of my interests in chemistry, faith, and religion.  (See “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Seeing the future is not all that hard, provided one is willing to, and excuse me for using a cliche, think outside the box and go beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking.  I think one of the difficulties that we face as a society is that we
are unwilling to make that type of move; to use our background and experience in other areas or to dig deeper into areas which we find interesting.

We can read the Old Testament reading by itself and read a lament by David on the death of Saul and Jonathan.  There are a lot of people who do and don’t want to do anything more than that.  But that misses the point.

In the verses before today’s Old Testament reading we learn that Saul and Jonathan died in battle and that David was informed of their deaths by an Amalekite.  When this Amalekite told David that Saul and Jonathan were dead, he handed Saul’s crown to David, in effect making David the new king.  And it was this Amalekite, in at least one version of the story, who helped Saul to die.  The Amalekite’s action can be considered an act of mercy though David sees it as an act of treachery.

For David, mercy towards a dying man does not trump the presumption of anyone, least of all an enemy, to kill “the anointed of the Lord” under any circumstance.

It poses an interesting question for us today.  The Scripture records David’s decision but it does not record an evaluation of that decision.  It presents both David and the Amalekite’s stories and perspectives, shows their conflict and states the results.  The text, as is done so many times in the Bible, offers not one right answer but many questions for us to ponder and struggle over with one another and with God.

Are we more like David, committed at all costs to enforcing the social norms?  Or are we like the Amalekite, trying to show mercy and make the best of a dreadful situation.  Who saw beyond the boundaries?

For me, this is repeated in the Gospel reading for today as well.  The woman who sought to touch Jesus went outside the social norms of the day. Whatever the cause of her illness, she was considered unclean and society said, in no uncertain terms, that she was not to be a part of society.

Such an act as hers would have resulted in her being scolded and possibly even being stoned.  For those who were the keepers of the norms, her actions could not be tolerated.  And yet for Jesus, all she had done was exercise her faith.

Social convention was in play with the death of Jarius’ daughter as well. We hear of the mourners who had gathered to mourn the daughter’s death.  We are told in the commentaries that these individuals were professionals of a sort, paid to come and mourn.  The “right” thing would be to join in the mourning.  Clearly, for Jesus to tell them to stop the mourning because the girl was only sleeping was acting against the social norm.

Now, as I was writing all of this and knowing that for one to see beyond the walls of today to the paths of tomorrow, one has to break with tradition and societal norms, I kept wondering where I was going to put Paul’s thoughts to the Corinthians.  The letter to the Corinthians is one we all know too well for it is a discussion of church finances and the obligations of the church in one location to churches in other locations.  In reading this letter, we are reading of the connectionalism that is a part of Methodist tradition and practice.  And I know too many churches where the conversation always begins with church finances and the argument that if the bills are not paid, there can be no church.

But like the professional mourners who came to mourn the death of Jarius’ daughter or David’s reaction to the Amalekite’s bringing him Saul’s crown, this is also part of the social norm.

Have we somewhere along the line forgotten that the church began in first in hiding and then in people’s homes?  How many of us know why Paul had to even discuss the funds that the Corinthians had promised to send to the churches in Jerusalem?  Paul does not order the Corinthians to send the payment but he does suggest that it is for their sake that they do so.  You cannot begin to see the future when you are focused on the present and/or the past.  Paul does point out that if the Corinthians act to help Jerusalem now, Jerusalem will be in a position to help them later should the need arise.

I can imagine what administrative council meetings at the church in Corinth must have been like; I have been to quite a few such meetings in my own time.  But I have yet to hear people talk about the future of the church except in terms of the present, of saying that things that cannot be because they are not possible now.

The commentary notes that I used to prepare this message today indicate that we need to seek ways to teach or model ways to build positive community change where we are and for others elsewhere.  You cannot do this if your operating model fits within the social norm.  And I say that because the social norm for many churches today does not match what Christ was doing two thousand years ago. 

For many the church of today is not the church of two thousand years ago or even the church of John Wesley two hundred and fifty years ago. Today’s church is more likely to be one in which the actions of David in killing the Amalekite are applauded or people act in the role of the mourners in the Gospel reading.

In the middle of this week, we will pause to celebrate this country’s independence.  There will be many, many celebrations of what has happened; it is only natural.  But what I fear is that while many echo the words of the founding fathers their actions seem to reflect the actions of the British crown in stifling the dissent.  When we speak of independence this week, I hope and pray that it will be such that we will want to find ways to make the celebrations a way to speak of the future and what possibilities lie before us.

The same is true for the church today.  Chad Brooks wrote in his blog about why he became a Methodist.  He is in the process of becoming an Elder in the United Methodist Church and, as such, he must answer some very basic questions, one of which is “Why did you become a Methodist?”

Part of his answer was that “I found the practice of a Historic faith that also encouraged continuing to forward movement into contextualizing worship in the 21st century.”  (from “Why I Became A Methodist”)  When we understand that being a Methodist, no matter the path that one takes, is to take on the persona of a group of believers who saw beyond the social norm and chose a path that included all we are looking to the future.  There are too many people today who say they are Methodist but whose actions reflect the actions of David in upholding the social norm and who are more like the mourners in the Gospel reading, proclaiming that the girl is dead and nothing can be done.  If we are to honor the future, we must be like the Amalekite, showing mercy to even our enemies, and we must find ways to help those like the woman in the Gospel who sought Jesus.

Today is the day that we begin to honor the future.  In our vow to let Jesus Christ be our savior, we are looking to the future.  In our acceptance of the Holy Spirit, we are working for the future.  Today is the day that we begin honoring the future; let us begin.

By Whose Authority?


This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 5th.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13.

I will be at Gaylordsville for the next three weeks; services are at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.

And on a personal note, this marks the start of my 4th year of blogging; today’s post is my 500th post.

—————————————————————-

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

With these words, Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence, the singular most important political protest document of all time. While there is no doubt about the political significance of this document, there remains to this day some question about the role that God played in all of this.

To hear some people, these words are equivalent to many passages in the Bible. These people speak of a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles but which has fallen from being the greatest because it has left those principles behind.

But which God are we talking about? Are we talking about a God who would give absolute authority to a monarch, to rule over a people as He would see fit; or are we talking about a God who would empower the people to think and be creative and find a way to bring equality and hope to the world?

At the time of the American Revolution, most monarchs believed that they had been given the power to govern directly from God and that to question that authority was to question God Himself. It is a feeling that many politicians, in this country and in other countries around the world, still feel today. And the people have allowed that, in part because they are more willing to let someone else lead them than bring about questions of why or how.

We live in a world that believes more in the power of the gun and the checkbook than in the power of the mind. We are more willing to consider the color of a person’s skin, their economic status, or their lifestyle than we are with the content of their character. We no longer demand quality in our work and we quite willingly accept mediocrity as quality; we prefer instantaneous response and sound bites over thoughtful consideration.

This is true in the church today. We are told that the Bible is, in effect, the exact words of God and they are not to be questioned. Any words that contradict the Bible are to be considered heretical and banned; any one who thinks in a different manner from the prescribed orthodoxy is to be expelled. But what do you do when the evidence suggest otherwise? Do you continue to own slaves and subjugate individuals because that’s what is written in the Bible? Shall we continue to solve our problems through force and warfare simply because force and warfare are written in the Bible?

If that is the case, where do we find the strength to fight against the sickness and death that stalks the world today? Where do we find the strength to speak out and act against injustice in this world today? Where is the power to change the course of history in the simple good works of people? Where did Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the others in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s find the strength to stand up against injustice and oppression when all the other people could not? Where did the young people of Birmingham find the strength they needed to withstand the torrents of water and the dogs when they sought equality some forty years ago?

I do not deny the Bible; I cannot deny the Bible for it tells me the struggle of a people to find their own identity. It tells me of a people who time and time again traveled the world on their own, only to become lost in the wilderness. And it tells me of a God who loved His creation so much that He would send His Son to save it. It tells me of Jesus Christ who would empower His disciples and His followers to go out into the world healing the sick, giving vision to the blind and bringing hope to the oppressed and forgotten.

Robin Meyers, author of “Saving Jesus from the Church”, stated that “It is not the case that faith is more pure when it is uninformed or when it turns away from critical thinking and sound reasoning as threats to the life of the spirit.” He also states that science and faith can work together, not against each other. The two things that most threaten faith today are the fear of what can be known and the fear of searching to know more. (Connections, July 2009)

The American Revolution began because our ancestors could not blindly accept the dictates of a king thousand miles away. In an age when individuals spoke of a God who created the world and gave them the power to think and reason, it no longer made sense to blindly accept the authority of an absent king.

If God gave mankind the ability to think and reason, then He gave mankind the authority to make decisions. In the Old Testament reading for today (2 Samuel 5: 1 – 5) the leaders of Israel, while recognizing that God had chosen David as the one to replace Saul, made a covenant with David to accept his leadership. It was not a blind acceptance of God’s command.

We are not called this day to blindly obey God; rather, we are to make that decision openly and of our own accord. The consequences of such blind obedience are all around us. We see a church that is no longer a church for all the people but only for some. Instead of challenging society to do what is right, it mirrors society and closes its doors to anyone who would challenge its authority in this world.

We have created a vision of the church that is elitist, exclusionary, and condemning and we expect people to accept this vision. The church today claims the power to judge and condemn even when such powers are counter to the thoughts and words of the original church. Society has, in effect, said we do not want the church. And people who were raised in the church all their lives are leaving because the power and the authority of the church are directed inwards and towards the maintenance of the status quo.

In essence, that is what Paul wrote to the people of Corinth. Paul could have clearly boasted of what he had done and how his life had changed but he chose not to do so. He was not the message but the messenger. We are not to look at the church but its message and too many churches today miss that point. Jesus brought the message of the Gospel, the Good News, to the people of Nazareth but they could not hear it because they only saw the son of Joseph and Mary. And because of their vision (or the lack of it), they could not experience what the Gospel truly is.

The church needs to move outward, to again be a place of free and fearless inquiry, a place of radical hospitality and spiritual sustenance. There is no doubt that Jesus gave His disciples some authority but it was the authority to change the world, not control it. He gave them the authority to heal the sick and drive out demons. And when they returned, they rejoiced for they had done things that even they could not have imagined.

They had sensed a power and an authority they never could have imagined. It was something counter to the thoughts and preferences of society; it brought hope to the people, it brought people in rather than cast them aside. It was a power and an authority not to be held over people but a power and authority to share with people in order to bring change.

We have an opportunity today to do the same thing, to bring about change in this world. But we must make a choice? Shall we accept the authority of this world, which believes in the gun and material wealth? We have seen what that authority can do.

Or shall we accept the authority of Jesus Christ, as did His disciples and the seventy-two later on, to take the Gospel message out into the world, not caring about what the world says but caring for the world and bringing hope and freedom to its inhabitants.

On this weekend, when we celebrate our freedom from earthly tyrants, shall we also not celebrate our freedom from the tyranny of sin and death? Whose authority shall we accept?

Three Kings


This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29

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One of my favorite hymns is “We Gather Together”. I am not sure what it is that causes me to like it, though it might just be the tune and the rhythm. But it expresses the thought of why we are here this morning and why we gather together each Sunday morning at 10 o’clock.

UMH #131

So I have to ask you this morning, “Why are you here this Sunday morning?” Is it because you are supposed to be here? Is there some requirement in your life that makes you be here? Or, is it out of habit that you are here? You know how it is, you get so used to doing something each day that it becomes a habit.

Or perhaps it is because you find those moments on Sunday morning in the sanctuary, singing the hymns, reading the Scriptures, and hearing the message to give you a chance to reconnect with God through Christ. Is it possible that on days like today when we celebrate Holy Communion, you join with Christ as others do and have done over the years since Calvary?

I hope and trust that your reasons for being here are more of the latter rather than because it is the thing to do or because it is a habit that you have picked up over the years. But I have observed over the years those for whom attendance in church was more of a social obligation rather than a call from the soul. I have seen churches where the decisions by the members have been dictated, not by the spiritual reasons, but rather by political and social reasons in the community. Those are not reasons for going to church.

But even if the reasons for coming to church are mundane and superficial, the people are in church, they are singing the hymns, they are hearing the scriptures and there remains the distinct possibility that the Holy Spirit will crack the shell protecting their soul and they will change. We have seen it work in the past and we know that it will work in the future.

But there are still those who do not come to church on Sunday. For some, especially those who are not members of any church or denomination, Sunday is a day to do the things that didn’t get done during the week. Sunday is a day to relax and get away from things. Sunday is a day to do things other than go to church. And unfortunately, society is quick to catch on to the fact that Sundays are days of freedom for many and things are scheduled to involve everyone. I would be remiss in saying that I don’t like that concept but I realize that it is another thing that churches must compete with in this highly secular society.

But among those who do not come to church are those who should be here. They have, by public profession of their faith at least once in their life, stated that they will support a church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Yet, as soon as those words have been said, they have been quickly forgotten.

Now, before anyone or everyone gets all riled up, let me say that I am aware that not everyone who is a member of this church and is not here falls into this general category. There are those who simply cannot physically be here; their ailments and well being prevent them from coming. And, when I know about such individuals and such individuals let me know, I make sure that communion is a part of their life and that they are a part of this community. Those individuals are a part of the church community and should never be considered otherwise.

But there are members who live elsewhere in this country and cannot by the nature of where they live come here on Sunday mornings. For those, membership in this church is convenient, simply a way to meet the obligations of society without any responsibility and obligation.

Membership in a church is not a matter of convenience or an obligation; it is a commitment. When it becomes a convenience, when it becomes simply a social statement, it quickly loses all of its meaning.

We read that the Ark of the Covenant was placed on a new cart and brought out of the house of Abinadab. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab drove the cart and Ahio walked in front. (2 Samuel 6: 3)

But this, while a logical method of transport, was against the rules for transporting the Ark. The law, in Exodus 25: 14, Numbers 3: 30 & 31, specifically stated that the Ark was to be carried by the sons of Kohath, not by a cart or any other vehicle. The Philistines had transported the Ark this way when they had captured it in battle and so for the Israelites to do so showed both ignorance of their own laws and disrespect for God.

What is interesting about the Old Testament reading for today are not the verses that we read but rather the verses that were skipped. In verses 6 through 12a, we read,

And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it, the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the Ark of God. And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah; and he called the name of the place Perez Uzzah to this day.

David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the Ark of the Lord with him into the City of David; but David took it aside into the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite three months. And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.

The commentary for this section indicates that though Uzzah’s violation (touching the Ark) was unintentional, it cost him his life. God had warned the Israelites in Numbers 4: 15 that no one, not even the Levites, could touch the holy objects of the tabernacle and that death was the penalty for violation. Now David was angry at this death but his anger was directed at God rather than at the carelessness of Uzzah or himself for allowing it to happen. Because of this, it was necessary to store the Ark for a period of time before it could be moved to Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant was stored in the house of a Levite for three months and then, as we read, transported to Jerusalem in the proper manner.

I do not wish to suggest that those who let their membership become a matter of convenience will die like Uzzah. But when you let your membership slide, when you no longer work to keep it active, the church is ultimately forced to remove you from the list of members and then when you need the church it will not be there. In one sense, to not have the church there when you need it most is the same as dying.

Some of those who fall into this category live in other states or at a distance too far away to make coming here possible. For those, the options are to find a church closer and become members there. It is a choice that they must make, not the church and certainly not I.

But it is those who do live within a reasonable distance of this place but still do not come that bother me most. It is possible that they cannot come on Sunday mornings. I know personally that many of the people at Fishkill United Methodist Church do not fully comprehend the lack of my presence on Sundays. On more than one occasion, when someone has called, I have to point out that I work on Sundays and cannot attend. I, of course, then tell them where I am working and what I am doing.

But there are those who do not come to the church for other reasons. Either someone once said something to them and caused their feelings to be hurt or there is an atmosphere in the church that doesn’t seem quite holy. Worship must be a time when people sense God’s presence. If there are reasons for God’s presence to not be there, people should be worried.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about unity, of being a community of believers, united in common belief. But though united in common belief, it is still a community of individuals and it is the diversity of members that provides the success of the community. But if the diversity of members is to be the measure of success, then there must also be respect among all members for the uniqueness and capabilities of all members. No one member has more than any other member and no member should ever feel less because his or her contribution doesn’t match someone else.

I think that is what we are to gain from the Gospel reading for today. Now, most commentaries point out that Mark put the story about the death of John the Baptist in his Gospel at this point to let everyone know that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be easy and that Jesus was going to meet a violent death as well. But it is also a story about what happens when you start doing things solely for yourself.

Herod had spent most of his political life trying to please others. Since John the Baptist had publicly rebuked Herod for his present marriage, Herod was probably looking for ways to please his wife. In the Gospel for today we read how Herod threw a birthday party for himself. It was at this party that his daughter danced in such a way that everyone was pleased and Herod said that he would give her anything she wanted, even up to half the kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should ask for, the mother suggested the head of John the Baptist. It was the daughter that added the part about having it on a platter.

But the key point is that Herod was forced through his own pride into doing something that he really didn’t want to do. But if he refused, he would have lost face and thus he could not refuse the request. As was noted in verse 26, the king was exceedingly sorry. It does not say what happened to Herod or how he dealt with the issue following the beheading but you know that he must have regretted that a man died because of his own pride.

Pride can be our downfall if we are not careful. It was David’s pride that prevented the Ark of the Covenant from being moved into Jerusalem. It was Herod’s pride that got John the Baptist killed. Now we can take pride in the fact that we are members of a particular church but we can never let that pride dictate how we feel or how we act. I will admit that I have seen people come to the table that I felt should not have come; people whose actions were more for their own self-interests rather than to benefit the church. But I also realize that whatever I think, it doesn’t count, let alone matter.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the first part, is a celebration of the fact that all the members of the church are united in the belief. The last part of the Old Testament reading for today is also a celebration, a celebration of the establishment of God in our hearts.

And the Gospel reading for today serves as a reminder that the tasks that we, as members of this church, are asked to do are not always easy tasks. But we know also know that we do not do those tasks alone. As we come to the table this day, we are reminded that Jesus’ death was for us, so that we would be united together in belief and in purpose.

This table is open to all that confess their sins and accept Christ as their savior. We do not, in the United Methodist Church, qualify admission to the table. And when we leave this table having spent a few moments with Christ and reuniting with the presence of the Holy Spirit, we should also spend a few moments acknowledging to others that they are a part of this community of believers. This can mean that you simply say hello to someone whom you have spoken to or seen in some time; it may mean reaching out to the neighbor across the street or down the road and inviting them to come on Sunday morning. The challenge is to see that what you do tells others where the Holy Spirit is in your life.

There were three kings in the Scriptures this day. One king let his own pride and self-centeredness bring about his downfall. One king first found fault with God for what were his errors but eventually acknowledged his own errors and was able to celebrate the presence of God in his life. The third King died on a cross so that we could live today. My challenge to you today is to find the king in your life.


Getting What You Asked For


This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29

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Earlier on in her life, my youngest daughter learned quickly not to ask her father, “Daddy, do you know what?” For as often as not, I would reply, “Yes, he plays second base for the Cubs.” Now, after the service last week several people told me that I said that Mark McGwire plays second base. Believe me, I know who’s on first.

If you are like me, you enjoy hearing the performance of Abbott and Costello’s routine of “Who’s On First?” which is surely one of the greatest comedy sketches ever created. For those that are not familiar, this piece revolves around the matter of understanding what the question was and what the answer is. If you are going to get the answer that you want, you have the right question.

For the people of Jesus’ time, the question was “Who was Jesus?” In the opening part of the Gospel reading for today, the people are saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist, raised from the dead. He might also have been Elijah or another prophet. The people don’t really know who Jesus is and it clearly shows that the expectations Israel had for its coming Messiah where in sharp contrast to the divine mission that Jesus was fulfilling.

And Herod is worried because he had ordered the execution of John by beheading because of a promise he had made to his wife’s daughter. Salome had danced to please Herod and his court and in return, as noted in Mark 6: 22 – 25., Herod promised anything that she might ask for. Because her mother, Herod’s wife, hated John the Baptist for publicly denouncing their marriage as sinful and a violation of Jewish law, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. The nature of the way the promise was made meant that Herod could not refuse her. No wonder he was afraid when he heard of Jesus and what people were saying. He certainly must have thought that if it were John the Baptist who was preaching, it was a ghost and he would suffer for held to his promise.

Thought the Old Testament reading for today is mostly about celebration, there is also a hidden undercurrent of resentment present.

David has brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and established that city as the capital of Israel. There is a great celebration, complete with dancing and shouting and music and good food. And David, in his celebration, extended that joy to all the people. In the last verse, after David had finished the burnt offering, he shared the offering with all the people who had shared in the celebration, something ordinarily not done.

But contrasted with this celebration is the anger of Michal, David’s wife and the daughter of the former king Saul. Michal felt that David’s actions and dress were inappropriate for a king. She was also angry that her father and brother had died in battle. To say that she despised David in her heart, as verse 16 indicates, was perhaps an understatement. If you read verse 20 of this same chapter, you see her anger in all its fury.

Against this anger, David reminded her that it was God who had chosen him to be king in place of her father and that he would gladly be more undignified and humble if that would honor God. David asked only to serve the Lord and he was rewarded. Unlike her brother Jonathan, who had accepted what God had given him, Michal could not accept what God was giving her and did not trust in God for future happiness. Instead, she became angry with both David and God and, as the last verse of chapter of chapter 6 notes, she died childless, the result of her estrangement from David and perhaps divine punishment because of her refusal to join in the celebration of God’s name.

If you ask for God’s help, you will receive it. The grace of God is open to all those who seek it. The people of Israel wanted a Messiah and God willingly sent His Son to fulfill that request. But what the people wanted was an earthly king, someone who would lift out of the bonds of slavery.

But the slavery that Jesus would lift the people out of was not the slavery to Rome or other earthly kings, it was the slavery of sin and death. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God does not guarantee health, wealth, and prosperity to the New Testament believer. Rather, belief in Christ offers the promise of a life with Christ. Throughout this entire letter, Paul tries to explain what God’s grace means and what we must do in order to gain that grace.

Knowing what question to ask is sometimes the most difficult task. For if we do not know what we want, we cannot ask the right question. To many of the Ephesians, God’s grace was a mystery, a puzzle that only a few or the initiated could solve. But that was religion was viewed as a mystery. Paul told the Ephesians that God’s will, once hidden and obscure, was now revealed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

As we come to the Communion Table today, remember that you are only asked one question. Do you come with a open heart, repenting of your sins, knowing that Christ died for you? If you have that question in your heart, then you will receive the promise of eternal life, you will get what you asked for.

Working Together


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost.
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One of the outcomes of my doctoral research was that I found out that businesses wanted chemistry graduates to be able to work together. This is because cooperation in the workplace is as essential to the success of a project as the technical and scientific knowledge that individuals bring to the project.

The ability to work together transcends the secular workplace. In today’s Gospel reading (1) Jesus sends out the disciples on their first mission in pairs. There were probably two reasons for doing this. First, by having a working partner, there was mutual support during this brief first missionary effort. Second, having two individuals working together adds to the credibility of the testimony that the disciples gave. It should be noted that this was also in accordance with the Old Testament where the testimony of two or more witnesses was necessary for the testimony of one to be considered.

This concept of teamwork for the completion of the task or the project in question was also stated in the Old Testament reading for today, (2)Here we read of the elders of Israel anointing David as their king; this was the third such anointing for David. He was first anointed by Samuel in anticipation of his rule and the second was in acknowledgement of his rule over Judah. This third anointing acknowledges that his rule will be over the entire nation of Israel.

But there is also the covenant between David and the elders. Covenants, such as what is common in the Bible, are formal agreements between two parties with each assuming some obligation or responsibility. Covenants can be made between two individuals, such as the one between Laban and Jacob following Jacob’s marriage to Rachel or the one between David and Jonathan. Or it can be as it was in today’s reading an agreement between an individual, such as David, and a nation, the people of Israel.

This covenant between David and the nation was to redefine the relationship between the king and the country. Earlier, in 1 Samuel 10: 25, Samuel had noted what the duties and prerogatives of the Israelite king were to be. This was done for the benefit of both the people and the king-designate. This was meant to clearly distinguish the Israelite kingship from that of the surrounding nations and ensure that the king’s rule in Israel was compatible with the continued rule of God over Israel as her Great King. The covenant established by David in today’s reading reaffirms this previous understanding.

It made it clear that the work of the country would be a partnership, with each partner responsible for certain tasks. The accomplishments of the nation could not be done without both partners working together. So when Jesus sent the disciples out into the mission field as partners, he was merely reminding them of the covenant that had been established long before they were there.

Now, Paul writes about the work that he is doing alone. (3)  But is he really working alone? As we read this 2nd letter to the Christians, we know that Paul is referring to himself, though he would rather not specifically state so. But as we read his words, we note that he is also referring to the Holy Spirit and acknowledging that without the presence of the Holy Spirit, none of his work would mean anything.

It is the same for us today. We go out into the mission field every time we leave our home or the church. Sometimes we go out in pairs but often times our journey is singular in nature. But, in accepting Christ as our Savior and opening our hearts to the presence of the Holy Spirit as the disciples did some two thousand years ago, we are not alone.

As Paul has noted on other occasions, we all have our own special skills and talents. It is those talents that we are called upon to utilize in the spread of the Gospel. But, as he reminded the Corinthians in this letter for today, it is not our skills and talents that enabled the Gospel to be successfully passed to the nations. We have to understand, as Paul did, that it is our partnership and covenant with God that brings the success we sometimes try to pass off as our own.

The partnership that we have with God today through the opening of our hearts and souls to the presence of the Holy Spirit is a reminder and a continuation of the partnership first established on the plains outside Israel when David became king. It is in the same manner as when Jesus sent the disciples out into the mission field, trusting in God, and working with a partner.

Are you prepared this day to work with God? Will you allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life so that the work you do brings glory to His Kingdom? These are the questions that you take with you today as you prepare to once again go out into the mission world.


(1)

Mark 6: 1 – 13

(2) 2 Samuel 5: 1- 5, 9 – 10

(3) 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10