“Stones”


Some thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2010.  This was also Mother’s Day, which is for those who are not aware, the result of Methodist activism. I am a little behind in my writing but working to get even and perhaps ahead of the curve.

It is safe to say that no one likes stones.  Stones hurt.  Perhaps that is why the Romans allowed the Jewish authorities to use stoning as a means of capital punishment and saved the other froms of punishment for themselves.

We may not use stones in the manner that the ancients did but we still use them to hurt.  But it is an interesting comment that the same stones that we use to hurt people can be gathered together and make something useful.

In the Old Testament, every time someone encountered God, they gathered the stones together to make a monument to that meeting.  Even today, we still do that, looking for the largest stone upon which we begin building our lives.  On this Mother’s Day, 2020, amidst all that is going on, I want to pause for a moment and remember my Momma, who set down the cornerstone of my own personal journey in faith.

The Romans gathered stones together and built the roads that would unite the Roman Empire.  And those same roads that allowed the Roman legions to maintain the Pax Romana through intimidation and violence were the same roads that allowed Paul and the other disciples to leave Jerusalem and spread the Gospel message throughout the whole word.

Stones come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes we use them to hurt others; sometimes others use them to hurt us.  But we also gather those same stones together and build things.  Our faith is built upon Christ, the Cornerstone.  As our faith grows, we build the roads that allow us to bring others to Christ.

As you wander through this time and space, consider the stones that lie at the foundation of your faith.  How will you use those stones?

“The Stones In Our Lives”


The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10 and John 14: 1 – 14.

My initial thoughts when I read the three readings for this Sunday suggested possible titles of “Rolling Stones” or “Sticks and Stones”.

But I have never been a big fan of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (though I once suggested that the AARP was making a big mistake – see “I Think The AARP Is Making A Big Mistake”). And there is too much violence and discord in the world to even think of using the other possibility.

But there came an image in my mind from many, many years ago when my family moved into our house on Coyle in San Antonio, just down the street from Maverick Elementary School. Our house had just been built and there really wasn’t much grass in the back yard (and the dirt that was made of a rather insidious clay that, after getting wet, hardened into a almost unbreakable rock known as caliche). My dad assigned me the task of clearing out all of the rocks and stones in the backyard so that we could plant grass. I was paid, I believe the grandiose sum of $.25 per 100 rocks!

And there were the rocks that we pulled out of the ground when we were preparing the Children’s Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh (see “The Garden We Plant”).

The key to all of this, you see, is not that we gather the rocks together but what we do with them afterwards. As best as I can remember, I merely moved all of the rocks in our backyard in San Antonio from all over the backyard to one spot where they probably got covered up. The stones I uncovered in the Children’s Garden at Grace were moved to one spot and marked off a section of the garden.

You get the impression in reading the passage from Acts that the people went around gathering up stones in order to make Stephen the first person to die for his faith. But we are also told in this passage that Saul was there that day and those who participated in the stoning gave their cloaks to him for safekeeping. And while it is necessary that we understand why Stephen died on that day, it is also important that we know that Saul was there as well, for it suggests to the reader that something else is about to happen.

You don’t put someone’s name in a passage from the Bible unless there is a reason for doing so (see some thoughts on this in “The Other Side Of The Universe”).

In his letter to the congregation Peter speaks of the stone that is the cornerstone of faith, Jesus Christ, and like the cornerstone of a building, the most important stone in our life. When I think of Saul going to Damascus to continuing persecuting those who will become known as Christians, I thought of the road or roads from Jerusalem to Damascus that he had to have walked on.

I recall from some history that I read many years ago that it was the roads that the Romans build that linked the places of the Empire together. The primary purpose of the roads was to insure that the Roman troops could get from place to place in order to maintain order. But those roads were built to last and many are still in existence today.

The Roman troops had to have gathered countless stones in order to build each road. But the irony of this is that a road that was built to let troops get from point A to point B in order to put down a possible rebellion or allow a young, angry prosecutor to continue the repression of a new faith group became the site of an encounter between Christ and that prosecutor. Instead of being a path of potential violence and hatred, it became the path that would lead to The Truth and The Way, the very path that Jesus spoke of when Thomas asked Him where they were all going.

What are the stones in your life today? What stones must you gather together for the sole purpose of getting rid of them? We cannot build the Kingdom of God here on earth when we gather the rocks and stones out of hatred and ignorance, when we gather them for purposes of violence and oppression. Such rocks become, as Peter pointed out, something to trip over.

But in choosing to follow Christ, those same rocks can be gathered together and help build a new life.

There are stones in our lives today. The question will always be “What will you do with them?” Shall we destroy this world or shall we build this world through Christ?

“Did I Miss Something?”


I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.

—————————————————————————–

I must have missed something last night. I was under the impression that the world was coming to an end. It sure seemed like a lot of people thought that it was. And given the state of the news this morning, of floods, hurricanes, and tornados ravaging the land, wars and violence over much of the globe, of greed and selfishness (and our pre-occupation with those who are greedy and selfish), of a separation of the people by economic status, race and gender, it might not have been all that terrible if the world had come to an end last night. If nothing else, such news sort of makes you depressed and crawl back under the bed covers in hopes that it will all go away.

To hear many modern day prophets and doomsayers, such news is an indication that God has forsaken this land, this planet and the people who live on it. They went to sleep last night fully expecting that, this morning, they would find themselves swept up from this world and now safely in heaven while the rest of us are left to our devices and doomed to live in some sort of existential never-never land. I hope that they weren’t terribly disappointed when they woke up this morning. Perhaps I didn’t miss anything at all.

Others will tell you that such news simply means there is no God. And this group woke up quite happy this morning, even if the world still seems like a bad place to live. Because, for all the shouting and announcements to the contrary, nothing happened and it can only mean that there really isn’t a God and religions are a waste of time and superstitious hoo-ha. Sadly, it is such events as this that are the basis for the rejection of Christianity.

Bob Herring, in his blog for Saturday, noted that there are many Christians who don’t have clear understanding about what the Scriptures do say about the end of the world and this will leave them even more confused, perhaps to the point that they will leave the faith and belief in Jesus Christ and try to find some other source of hope in this day and age. (Adapted from “I’m Planning a “We’re Still Here Party” for Sunday”)

It is sad that the public opinion of Christianity and what we can do in this world is hampered by those whose proclamation and prophecy is faulty and illogical and not by the work of those who were actually doing the work of God on this planet.

Now, I have a confession to make. I know that the world will come to an end. There is more to the destruction of this planet, this solar system, and the universe than predictions somehow buried deep within the text of the Bible. Current theories about the life of stars tell us that one day our own Sun will start to expand and engulf this planet. Theories about the creation of the universe tell us that it is expanding but at sometime in the far, far future, it will stop expanding and perhaps even collapse. But both of these events will occur long after our existence has run its course and are, at best, speculation at this time. Whatever may happen, it will be an event that we will miss.

I think that there have been at least five and perhaps more predictions for the end of the world during my lifetime. Each has been expressed with an absolute sincerity and an equally absolute sense of certainty. There have been over 1000 such predictions for the end of the world as we know it made in the 2000 or so years of what is now called the Common Era. You would think that such intensive and exhaustive study of the same data and the same scriptures by so many individuals would eventually yield some sort of positive result.

God did give us wisdom and He did give us the ability to use this wisdom to both create and destroy. It would seem to me that we are more bent towards destruction than creativity. Let’s face the facts! God doesn’t need to destroy this planet; we are doing a good job of it ourselves!

There are many who do not have to be reminded of the unstated horrors of thermonuclear war that dominated our thoughts and lives during the 1950s and 1960s. We can easily visualize what might have happened if our squadrons of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, had taken off on their missions of destruction in response to an attack by the former Soviet Union. We were constantly reminded during the 70s and 80s how many cities and targets could be destroyed with the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (or MIRV) on a single missile. I find it ironic that the more complicated the name we give for a nuclear weapon, the more destructive its capability.

Do we need to be reminded that the only thing that prevented a nuclear war in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s was the knowledge that such destruction was mutually assured (what better acronym is there for war than the one for “mutually assured destruction”, MAD)? We now know from the tapes made by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, that we were perilously close to nuclear war and that one wrong move by either side would have triggered Armageddon.

All we have to do today is look around and see what we have done, from the development of more horrific weapons of mass destruction to what we have done to the environment (be it caused by global climate change or not), and how we treat other people and then we can wonder why it is we haven’t destroyed the world already.

What I suppose bothers me most is that people have seen these signs but ignored them. They are resigned to the destruction of the world and hope that somehow, because they are the true believers, they will be the ones that God saves.

They feel they are the ones that Peter called the chosen ones, and somehow this makes it acceptable to be blind to the world around them. They miss or forget the words that follow, that speak of being the instruments of God’s work, of having to speak out for God and telling others what it means to be a Christian, to speak of the difference Jesus Christ has made in their lives. They miss the words that Jesus spoke to Philip of continuing the work that Jesus began.

Instead of doing the work of Christ, they spend all their time pointing out how others have failed to keep this rule or that, or how we have to keep the church clean and proper (and they are not talking about vacuuming the carpet or polishing the brass on the altar). They frown on laughter and applause in the sanctuary because that is not the proper way to worship the Lord. They are so busy working to keep the church that they miss seeing Jesus walk right on by.

They are the ones who encouraged the mob to stone Stephen because he proclaimed a vision of Christ but one they could not see. And since they could not see the vision that Stephen laid out before them, they felt that he was the blasphemer, not them.

I hope that you did not miss the significance of this day as far as being a United Methodist, though. Today is Aldersgate Sunday because it is the Sunday closest to May 24th, the day that John Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit. We should remember that once John and Charles Wesley were both such legalistic Christians. When we say that we are Methodists, and while I hope that we say it boldly and proudly, we are telling everyone that our heritage was once a very strict and legalistic one.

But John and Charles Wesley both knew that this approach wasn’t working. It is said that this same week, when John Wesley went to Aldersgate, Charles was lying on his bed convinced that he was going to die and die a failure. But when they both received the Holy Spirit things changed.

We have to come to believe that the word martyr means one who has died for a cause but it really means witness. Stephen was the first martyr, not only because he died for the cause but also because he spoke of what he saw and what he knew. We are not asked to die for the cause but we are asked to tell the world what we have seen and what we know.

Do we need to be reminded that when John Wesley and the early Methodists began, they were barred from preaching in their churches so they took to the fields? And the religious authorities, much like the authorities in the reading from Acts, encouraged the people to throw stones and rocks at these early Methodists.

I saw a note the other day that Wesley’s early ministry went against the social norm of his day.  He went into the prisons, he fed the hungry, he even found ways to heal the sick.  He did so because that is where he felt he would find Christ and that is where he felt he could show Christ.

People are going to through stones at us when we walk that same path; when we witness for Christ as we do so.

You have heard me speak before about Grannie Annie’s kitchen and the breakfast ministry that we have begun at Grace Church in Newburgh. Our philosophy is that each person who comes in on Saturday and Sunday will receive a breakfast. There is plaque that has hung in Ann’s kitchen for 40 years that says “let all guests be received as Christ.” How do we know that any one individual who comes to our table is not Jesus? Where does it say that Jesus will come either in a fabulously white robe or an elegant suit? Is it not better to feed all who are hungry than ignore the one? Is this not the same work that Christ empowered Philip and the other disciples and followers to do?

But like Thomas, we are uncertain about the direction we must take or even what it is we must do.

Several years ago, I drove from Memphis to St. Louis. I could have taken the easy route north by crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas and heading north on Interstate 55. Under optimal conditions, one can make the trip in 4 hours. But I don’t like driving Interstate highways unless I absolutely have to.

I chose to take a route up the east side of the Mississippi, through Kentucky, across the Ohio River, and into Illinois. It was a little bit longer but more scenic and there were more options to stop. Now, on this particular trip, I was listening to a St. Louis radio station and paying attention to the traffic. What I was not doing was paying attention to the road signs and pretty soon I noticed that the countryside of Illinois that I was passing through bore no resemblance to what I remembered from previous trips. It would be easy to say that I was lost because I did not know where I was other than I was somewhere in southwest Illinois. Having a map was partially useful but also of no help without knowing exactly where on the map I was.

But, for the most part, country roads in Illinois run east-west and north-south; so it was just a matter of driving north on the road I was on and I would soon reach an east-west road that would allow me to go west and eventually run into the road I normally took. I had the basic knowledge and that knowledge would lead me back to the path I was supposed to be on.

In the same vein, Jesus is the basic knowledge, the truth, the life, the way. Peter’s challenge is not just be like babes but to grow and mature, to take the knowledge presented to us and use it in ways that Christ has taught us. We are to show the world who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.

It is more than simply seeing the world. There is something missing when all we see is destruction and desolation; there is something missing when we see a world destroyed by and through greed and selfishness; there is something missing when people are abused or oppressed. There is something missing when a person is rejected by society because of their economic status, their race, their gender, or their lifestyle.

The one thing that is missing is the love of God and that is what we must provide.

The cynics in the world today want to see God, they want to see Jesus and they ridicule those who believe. It isn’t that they missed seeing either God or Jesus; they have never been shown either the Father or the Son.

Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father and Jesus replied that those who have seen Him have seen the Father. Jesus also told Philip that he, Philip would be called on to do the same work that Jesus had been doing. When we do the work of Jesus, when we feed the hungry or help the homeless find shelter or we heal the sick, people will see Christ in us.

On his blog this week, John Meunier asked who would miss us if we were not here tomorrow. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, quite a few people would miss us – those served by the food banks, those who come to the church for a meeting, those whose lives were helped by UMCOR offering or a VIM trip, those who brought their children to a pre-school during the week. (from “Who Would Miss Us?”) There is a new ministry beginning in the Newburgh area; it is called Family Promise and it offers hope to families where the parents may be out of work or have lost their home because of the economic times. This ministry, like the food bank and the day care center and the UMCOR projects and the VIM trips are not done with the expectation that such actions will open the doors of heaven; they are done because we love others as God has loved us. It is the love that God expressed to us when He sent His Son to die on the cross.

The call today is very simple. We are called to open our hearts and our minds so that we can see, feel, touch, and sense the presence of Christ. Through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions we are to lead a life that would allow others to know Christ. We are called to bring Christ to the world. We are called today to go out into this world and be the opportunity to show Christ to world. I do not know about you but that is something I do not want to miss.

“The New Cornerstone”


This is the message that I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.

—————————————————————-

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

With those words, Jesus laid the cornerstone for his church.

In everyone’s life there must be a cornerstone; there must be a foundation upon which live can be built. Some years ago, as you know, I moved to St. Cloud, MN. The reason for the move was ostensibly to become an assistant professor of Chemistry at St. Cloud State University. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that God wanted me there to be a part of Grace United Methodist Church.

When I first came to St. Cloud, I knew nothing about Grace Church, having only been told about the two other United Methodist Churches in St. Cloud. But one summer day, as I was wondering around the town, I discovered Grace. Later, when John Praetorius asked me on which committee I would serve, I told him that I would serve on any committee except stewardship. I just did not want to get involved in money raising. So John made me chair of the Finance committee and I was involved in the money raising anyway.

As chair of the Finance committee, I was asked to give the first testimonial when the Stewardship drive for 1992 began. In part, I said

I am a second-generation military brat. This means that both my grandfather and father served in the military and that much of my early life was spent traveling from air base to air base. As such, I do not have a home church; a church that I could say to others "This is the church where I grew up."

But having a home church is something that I never worried about. Having a church home has. What I have looked for, especially in the last few years when my life was taking a beating spiritually, was a church home.  (What Grace Church Means to Me – My Church Home, Stewardship Moment, October 18, 1992, Stewardship Sunday; I revised and adapted this piece for later use – “What does stewardship mean to me?”)

As the son of a career military office, I attended ten different schools during my pre-college education. Because of these early family travels and my own professional career, I have made over forty moves. Through all of these moves, it has been Jesus Christ and the church upon which I could base my life. As I look back, I realize that Jesus has always been a part of my life, protecting me as I sought what He wanted me to do. During periods of my live when I was going through some difficult personal troubles, my faith in Jesus Christ and the early foundation that provided comfort and strength. Were it not for this foundation, I do not believe I would have the success that I have had.

I might add that this foundation was actually laid before I was born. In records going back to 1650, the family history notes 13 members of the family who have served as ministers in the Lutheran Church. While I have chosen to follow the path set by Wesley, Otterbein, Asbury, and the many Methodist and EUB preachers rather than that of Luther, I consider the tradition and honor of my family to be an important part of my life. I would also add that I did not know this history until after I had begun to think about the lay ministry.

My mother saw to it that the foundation was laid early. She saw to it that I and my two brothers and sister were baptized as infants. I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina. As I, my brothers, and sister grew up, and though we made many moves, we always attended Sunday School and church. Though later in life, when I found myself straying from the fold, I would sense something was missing on those Sundays when I missed church.

The way we live, the paths that we follow is often decided early in life. As Jesus told his disciples as noted in the Gospel reading today,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

But we can be like Thomas, who had said “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To some extent we are like Thomas. We can get confused and not know where Jesus is going so it is impossible for us to know the way. And to some extent we are like Philip as well. Simply put the proof in front of us and it will be easy for us to believe.

Belief in the Father requires belief in Jesus. For each of us, having come to Christ, such belief is possible. But what of others who have not come to Christ? How do these people come to know Christ, so that they too can know the Father?

The first reading today is an interesting reading in the context of stones and building the foundation of the church. Stephen professed a belief in Jesus and God that many devout Jews felt bordered on being blasphemous. When I read the passage where they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their lungs, I could not help of thinking of how little children act when they don’t want to hear something.

To some people, the next sentence in that passage, “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul,” suggests that Saul was the person who organized the stoning of Stephen. But others simply state that Saul’s presence was simply there so that Luke, the author of Acts, could introduce him. Whatever the reason, Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit and the comfort that it gave Stephen. Saul may have at first felt that the stoning of Stephen was the proper thing to do but I would like to think that it gave him pause to consider just what he himself thought. We all know that shortly after that episode, Saul came to know Christ personally as Paul, became the missionary of the first church.

Peter spoke of “living stones”.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

This spiritual house that Peter spoke of is the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it was the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable condition and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.

John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, had to go out into the community.

About 5 years ago, I heard Dr. Rose Sims preach at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. It turned out that we shared a common bond. While I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, she was working on her doctorate. As it turns out, her major advisor served on my graduate committee. She was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community.

Each day we are reminded of the need for the church and the presence of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. We shake our heads when we hear of children who threaten others because they feel left out. We wonder why it is that children resort to violence to respond to the taunts and behavior of their classmates. To kill someone because they taunted you is wrong, there is no doubt about that. But it is also wrong for someone to make fun of someone for whatever reason. How then do we deal with the problems of society?

I firmly believe that the answer lies in the church. The church’s presence in the community can offer the cornerstone, the foundation that is needed for a life in Christ. Without that foundation, it is impossible to have a stable life. We have a hymn (UMH 529) that speaks of this foundation, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”

As I said last week, there is a vision for this church in the community. It does not matter what the size of the church is, for if Christ is among you and I am sure that it is, the power of the Holy Spirit transcends size. It was the power of the Holy Spirit that transformed the Trilby Church, it was the Holy Spirit that transformed St. Cloud Grace.

As we approach May 23rd and Pentecost, I am asking you to think of someone who needs that foundation in the Lord, that person who lacks the rock upon which they can build their life. Between now and the 23rd, we need to be praying for those individuals. And we need to be thinking about who we can invite to church, not just on the 23rd but next week and the week after that. Just as Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit in Stephen, so too will people see the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Neon United Methodist Church.

There is someone in this community who needs to rebuild their life. Through the presence of the Neon Church, they can find that new cornerstone in life.


Which Side Are You On? (2005)


This was a sermon that I gave for the 5th Sunday of Easter (24 April 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York).  The Scriptures were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14. (Edited on 17 March 2010)

——————————————————————–

Back about a year ago I mentioned an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?" (see "Which Side Are You On? (2004))  Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, there is no middle ground; you are either a union man or you worked for the coal company.

Pete Seeger in an introduction to "Which Side Are You On?" on his record "Cant You See This System’s Rotten Through And Through" says:

"Maybe the most famous song it was ever my privilege to know was the one written by Mrs. Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was an organizer in that "bloody" strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932.

They got word that the company gun-thugs were out to kill him, and he got out of his house, I think out the back door, just before they arrived. And Mrs. Reece said they stuck their guns into the closets, into the beds, even into the piles of dirty linen. One of her two little girls started crying and one of the men said "What are you crying for? We’re not after you we’re after your old man"

After they had gone she felt so outraged she tore a calendar off the wall and on the back of it wrote the words and put them to the tune of an old hard-shelled Baptist hymn tune, although come to think of it the hymn tune used an old English ballad melody … And her two little girls used to go singing it in the union halls."

There were no questions in Harlan County about which side you were on; as the song goes,

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

But life is never that simple. You may find that you start out on one side of a battle or an issue but as time goes by, you may find yourself moving to the other side of the same battle or issue. There are a number of biographies coming out in the next month about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

He is best known as the administrator of the Manhattan Project, our wartime project to develop an atomic bomb. The project was initially conceived because the Allies in World War II feared that Germany was developing a similar weapon and conceivably would use such a weapon in the same manner that the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 rocket were used, to initiate terror in the closing days of the war.

But as the war in both the European and Pacific theaters progressed, it became increasingly obvious that Germany was incapable of using the weapon. And, as it turned out, Germany’s research in atomic weapons was behind that of the Allies’ effort. So, the emphasis on using the weapon being developed in the mountains of New Mexico shifted from Germany to Japan.

Oppenheimer was chosen to head the project because he had initially shown an appreciation for what such a weapon could do. As it turned out, his selection to head the project also showed that he was a capable and efficient administrator, one who could get a collection of physicists and chemists to work together in complete and total secrecy. But his selection was met with considerable opposition, especially from the F. B. I. who were convinced that he was a major security risk and secretly a member of the Communist party. Still the needs of the project outweighed the concerns, though the F. B. I. continued throughout the latter part of World War II to prove what they felt was the truth.

Later, in the mid 1950’s, as the United States shifted its emphasis from atomic weapons to more destructive nuclear weapons, the concerns of the F. B. I. and Oppenheimer’s own political activity were used to deny him the security clearance he needed to continue working in the area.

During that time period, Robert Oppenheimer shifted his view of atomic weapons as a necessary part of war to one of opposition. He could see that weapons of such destructive force would have far greater consequences on the world than just the simple destruction of one town or the defeat of a country. At the time of the test explosion in the summer of 1945,

He later recalled that while witnessing the explosion he thought of a verse from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…”

However, another verse that he remembered stuck in his mind: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" (http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Robert_Oppenheimer)

Near the end of his life, Oppenheimer expressed mixed feelings about the atomic bombings:

"I have no remorse about the making of the bomb and Trinity [the first test of an a-bomb]. That was done right. As for how we used it, I understand why it happened and appreciate with what nobility those men with whom I’d worked made their decision. But I do not have the feeling that it was done right. The ultimatum to Japan [the Potsdam Proclamation demanding Japan’s surrender] was full of pious platitudes. …our government should have acted with more foresight and clarity in telling the world and Japan what the bomb meant." (Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity, pg. 332-333). (http://www.doug-long.com/oppie.htm)

There are often times when you believe that you are right or the cause in which you believe is correct until you see the consequences of your actions or your beliefs. It is not clear from the passage in Acts that was our first lesson today if Saul, soon to become Paul, was the instigator of the stoning of Stephen, or simply a bystander. But in the next few verses we read that Saul leads the first persecution of Christians in the Jerusalem area. But, even as Saul is beginning his persecution of Christians, we read of some devout men who buried Stephen, perhaps because they recognized the presence of God’s activity in Stephen.

It may be that Luke simply wants to introduce the individual who will take the Gospel out of Israel and throughout the world of his time. But we have to think that Saul’s experience at this incident had a lot to do with what would later transpire on the road to Damascus. Saul saw what happens when Christ becomes part of one’s life and that vision may very well have lead him to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and the event that changed his life and name. And just as Stephen’s expression of faith in Christ affected those around that day in Jerusalem, so too does His presence in our lives affect those around us and in our community.

Peter writes of Christ being the cornerstone of the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it is the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper classes may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable conditions and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.

John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, to go out into the community.

But the problem today is that the church that goes out into the community is not the church of Wesley nor is it anything like the church that began in Jerusalem. There are those in the world today who will tell you what the truth is but it is a truth that excludes and denies. It is a truth that is limited to a few, not to everyone. Yet Christ opened his arms and said that anyone who believes would be welcomed. Stephen characterized those who were to stone him as stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7: 54) What would these modern day Pharisees say?

For many individuals in today’s society, it makes things very confusing. Like Thomas, they cannot find the house that Jesus promised them would be there.

Others are like Philip, confused about what to look for. They would like someone to simply put the truth their in front of them. But like the men who stoned Stephen, it is often difficult to know what the truth is.

As Pheme Perkins, professor of New Testament at Boston College reminds us; too many Christians see local churches as human institutions and forget that it is God who builds God’s churches. But how else could such a wide variety of people from all walks of life, social positions and family structures become a dwelling for the Holy Spirit? Though we are introduced to Paul as Saul and the persecutor of Christians because of their perceived threat to the faith Paul later writes

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually in dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2: 19 – 22)

If the flesh of Jesus could break down the dividing wall between both Jews and Gentiles and make them into one, then surely the resurrected Christ can build farmers and stay-at-home parents and mechanics and doctors into a dwelling place for God. How odd that the rock of ages, in whom we seek sanctuary, fashions us into a living sanctuary for the rest of the world.

What makes the gift of the church astonishing is that none of us, save Jesus, is necessarily striking in our singularity. And even Jesus does not stand alone. He offers himself to be the building material that anchors the rest of us in place. (From “Precious Stones” by Jenny Williams in “Living by the Word”, Christian Century, April 19, 2005.)

At a time when Christian voices call for exclusion and denial, it is time that we stand up and welcome those who seek Christ. In the union song that is the basis for this sermon, the verse says,

Come all of you good workers

Good news to you I tell

Of how that good old union

Has come in here to dwell

But it is not the union that has come but the Holy Spirit. Which side are you on? Are you on the side, watching and letting others drive away those who need to be here? Or are you on the side of Stephen, Philip, Paul, the prophets, the disciples and the apostles proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is Christ and that he has come to bring salvation to the earth. Which side are you on?


The Church’s Bottom Line


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter.

————————————————————–

Links updated on 18 February 2010

————————————————————–

Sometimes it is interesting how things work. For the better part of the week, I thought that this Sunday was April 27th instead of April 20th. So my thoughts about the Scripture during the week focused on both April 27th and May 4th (when I go back to Dover). I had not given much thought to the Scripture for April 20th because of that.

But in my post of April 18th, “The Bottom Line”, I said that I would consider the church’s bottom line at a later date. Then I reread the Scriptures for the 20th and I found the thoughts that I needed. Isn’t it interesting how things work sometimes?

For those that didn’t read the post, I made the observation that the ultimate bottom line for the church is the number of souls that are saved. I also commented that such a measurement would be a little difficult to determine. In truth, the only way that you are going to know your impact on life, be it in the church or education or some other field, will be long after you are gone from this place on earth. But if we wait until such time to determine how well we have done we will have wasted many opportunities.

The problem is that we evaluate those opportunities in ways that often are counterproductive to the mission of the church. At times, we are more interested in the number of warm bodies we can put in the pews each weekend or we are interested in how much money we contribute to the missions of the church.

Yes, we should be contributing our time, talents, and funds for the missions of the church; yes, we should be seeking to have large numbers of people in worship each weekend. But those measures are often used as substitutes for the actual work of the church. And we measure the success of a church by those same numbers.

But what happens if a church is in an economically depressed locale? Are we to abandon that church because its numbers are dwindling and its monetary contributions are falling off? What is the mission of the church if it is not to bring hope to an area? What message of hope can be given if the church itself bails out of an area and says that it cannot survive there?

People have come to believe that if they attend church regularly and they tithe, then they have met the requirements for being a good and faithful Christian. They see the church in that same way as well.

This, of course, is contradictory to the major precept of the church that it is one’s faith in Christ that is the sole requirement. Too often we turn the words and thoughts of the Scriptures from what they are into what we want them to be.

We forget that the early Christians more often than not died because of their beliefs. We forget that the early Christians had to meet in secret because of their beliefs. We forget that the early church was a community brought together because of a desire to live a life that was demonstrated to them by Christ. And we have forgotten that we are take the message that was given to them into the world, not forcing people to believe but rather showing them what it means to believe.

As Peter wrote in his first letter (1 Peter 2: 2 – 10), we are a chosen people. But that doesn’t make us exempt or remove us from the world; nor does it make us “special.” In fact, it means exactly the opposite. We are to be in the world, showing the world what life can be. It does not make us special, other than we live with a confidence that the secular world cannot provide.

The road that we travel each day is the same road everyone else travels. And for many people, that road is fraught with danger and uncertainty. As Thomas first said to Jesus, “we do not know where you are going so how do we know the way?” (John 14: 1 – 14) Thomas’ thoughts are our thoughts; we do not know the way and we seek to find the answer within this world.

Of course, we cannot do that; for the way that we must walk is a way of life, not a road. It will not be an easy life and those that say that Christianity promises an easy life have no clue as to what they are saying. The only certainty is that we have a secure foundation in Christ and that foundation will be the protection that we need when the winds of change and uncertainty blow around us.

What is the bottom line for Christianity and the church then? We are called to bring the Good News to the people. That is the bottom line. We are not called to be prisoners or martyrs for Christ. We are not called to convert people or condemn them; we are not called to stand on a street corner in our home town and shout Bible verses at the top of our long. We are called, instead, to live a life that shows the power of the Holy Spirit present in our lives.

Is this dangerous? Yes, it is. People have died living the life that Christ taught us to lead. People have been criticized and ostracized for leading the life that Christ calls us to lead. And people have left the path because they do not want the criticism, the ostracism, and the threat of life. But when we lead the life of Christ, we can approach all those fears with a new found confidence. Stephen preached the Gospel to the people and the people reacted by killing him. But through it all, Stephen praised God and asked that the people be forgiven. (Acts 7: 55 – 60)

To be sure, to be willing to die for a cause does not make the cause right. But if we are called to die for our faith, then we can see the immense worth of our faith and the worthlessness of much that we hold to have value. In his trial Socrates taught that the purpose of life is not to avoid dying but rather to avoid unrighteousness.

During the Civil Rights struggle of the early sixties, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the value of truth:

I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit — but we must stand for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for. (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)

The outcome of those days was a change in the mindset of the people, though I am not so sure it is remembered that way today.

What good did it do for Stephen to die? Remember that an on-looker to this event was Saul of Tarsus. Yes, he will soon begin prosecuting Christians but one has to think that this set the stage for his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and his conversion to Paul.

I began with a focus on the bottom line and our need as a people and as a church to think about what that constitutes. The bottom line is not the number of people in the pews for a given worship service nor is it how much money is spent by a church or individuals on mission work. And the bottom line is not your death in the name of the cause. Those who seek their death in the name of their faith have a very poor understanding of their faith. But if you understand your faith and you are willing to live your faith, then you will face the outcome with joy and celebration. That is the bottom line.