“Who Built Your Road?”


This will be the back page for the 16 July 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin of Fishkill United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 30: 18 – 29, Romans 9: 30 – 33, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.


It has been said that one reason for Paul’s success as an evangelist was the roads the Romans built throughout their empire.  Using stones and other local materials, these were roads carefully planned to facilitate military traffic between Rome and the provinces to keep the Pax Romana.

Some of these roads still exist today, providing paths for many people to walk.  Now, whether they were intended or not, the existence of these roads made it very easy for Paul to achieve his goal of spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, in effect working against why the roads were built (but that is for another time).

Our journey with Jesus is never an easy one.  But when we take the rocks that we often stumble over and make them part of the road on which we walk, the journey becomes a little easier.

Today, we need to consider two very simple questions, “Who cleared the path and laid the rocks so that your journey would be smoother?  Who built the roads on which you took your journey?”

And then there is another set of questions, “Are you helping build roads for others?  Are you doing the things that build the roads that help make the journey for others a bit smoother?”

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Which Way Will You Walk?


A Meditation for 29 June 2016, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The meditation is based on 2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 -14; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25; and Luke 9: 51 – 62.

This is about our legacy, that one thing that will be here after we are gone, our bones have turned to dust, and our soul is in Heaven. In the movie “A Man For All Seasons” Sir Thomas More suggests that Richard Rich should be a teacher.

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

These are simple times, times which define history. History is not determined by complicated issues but rather simple actions by everyday people.

And whether we like the idea or not, the decisions we make, no matter how insignificant they may seem, will have a lasting impact on what happens next.

Paul points out that God has called us to a new and free life. But this freedom comes with a price; it is not an excuse to do whatever we want because that only costs the very freedom we gained, and in the end, leads to our destruction.

I believe that there are perhaps four different types of people in this world: 1) those whose only intent is evil (and I hope that are not too many of these individuals), 2) those who see acts of evil as a manifestation of good, 3) those who perform acts of good but solely for their own benefit, and 4) those whose acts of good and kindness are for the benefit of all.

Admittedly, this is a very arbitrary scale and I don’t know how one fits onto it but, to be quite honest, there are people who do fit into the first three categories and those who are in the fourth category are in a distinct minority. I would presume that most individuals are in the third category who only do good when it is best for them to do so.

But it is quite clear that this is not the choice that Jesus demanded from those who choose to follow Him, either two thousand years ago or even today. As Paul wrote, it is not just what you think but what you do that counts.

There comes a time when each one of us has to make a decision about what we are going to do and the path we will walk. Time and time again, the prophets of the Old Testament pointed this out. The decision by Elisha to follow Elijah, to take his cloak and continue his work is the decision we are called to make today.

Will you walk your own path, knowing only that it does lead anywhere (no matter what you might think at this time)? Or shall you walk with Christ, knowing that it leads to total and complete freedom?

“It’s A Matter Of Vision”


A Mediation for 5 July 2015, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) based on 2 Samuel 5: 1 – 5, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1 – 13


I have always said and thought that one of the hardest messages to prepare is the one for the 4th of July weekend Sunday. At a time when the country is celebrating the beginning of a revolution, it is sometimes very difficult to talk about peace.

Granted, when our founding fathers gathered together in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776, their vision of the coming months was undoubtedly one of war and not peace. Even Patrick Henry, in his memorable speech of March 23, 1775, noted “The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!”

A couple of years ago I came across a quote that said,

Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

I initially thought that the author Arthur C. Clarke had said it. But I found out that it was an individual named Joel A. Barker. I have never heard of this individual but I discovered that his claim to fame is that he took the notion of the paradigm shift, first proposed by Thomas Kuhn in relation to the idea of scientific ideas, and applied it to business models (“What’s The Next Step?”)

Borrowing from my doctoral notes on the nature of scientific philosophy, a paradigm can be considered the boundaries that define our practices. There comes a time, however, when our practices cannot meet the needs of the system and there needs to be a paradigm shift, the development of new practices and possibly new ideas. Such changes come with great difficulty and much fighting (from “The New Paradigm”). Intellectually, this comes about when our thinking processes make a radical change, when we stop trying to apply rote memory for solving problems (trying to solve a problem that we have always done so) and actually solve the problem.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that our founding fathers understood this point very clearly; that they needed to take action to make the Declaration of Independence a real document and not just words on a piece of parchment. But is the same true today?

How do we effect change today? Can we change the world without resorting to the gun or the other countless weapons of mass destruction that we have at our beck and call? Are we to understand, as Chairman Mao once stated, that “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun.” If that is the case, then there is no answer except for war and violence. And, it would seem to me, that if that is the case, then it isn’t necessarily a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong but whoever has the most destructive weapons. I am not willing to accept that as the the future for this world or society.

And so we are at a point where we can continue operating under the same system as before or we can create a new paradigm.

What was Jesus trying to do when he sent the 12 out on that first mission described into today’s Gospel reading? Wasn’t he trying to show them (and the others identified in the other Gospel readings) what was possible? Was Jesus not offering a new vision for the future instead of the one that everyone currently had?

Paul writes about his own personal transformation, of being a different person than the one many people knew. Again, Paul was offering the possibility of a new vision, something unexpected.

The interesting thing about this change, this transformation, is that one has to be personally involved with the process. It does not come automatically, nor does it come from simply reading about it or even perhaps acknowledging it. You must become actively involved in the process.

As I have recounted numerous times in the past, my own involvement in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s (limited as they were) stemmed in part from the thought that my works would get me into heaven. Of course, it is granted that it is only by God’s grace that we have such access but does that mean that we are not to do good works, only accept Christ?

If you do good works and expect that by doing so, you will gain that coveted access, I think you will be sorely disappointed. Because you did not do the works for others, you did them for yourself. On the other hand, you might find yourself in a situation similar to the one John Wesley found himself in.

Immediately it stuck into my mind, “Leave off preaching. How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” I asked [Peter] Böhler, whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered “By no means.” I asked, “But what can I preach?” He said, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” — John Wesley, Journal, 4 March 1738

I think this is also what Paul is pointing out to the Corinthians; his salvation was not of his doing and perhaps his doing may have been leading him in the wrong direction. But that moment when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus was a life-changer, in more ways than one. For us, today, Paul’s conversion allowed us to gather together today. His efforts in telling the world about Christ, no small task in itself, created changes that resounded through the world.

Our task today is very similar but I think we need to see it in a different way. It is clearly evident that telling people about Jesus and doing so in a way that literally forces them to believe is wrong. Did not Jesus tell the disciples that if they were welcome in a town to continue walking?

Second, we have to understand that not everyone has the same sense of Christ that we do. So telling them about Christ has no effect, since they haven’t got a clue what you are talking about.

But, if we do that which we have been asked to do, to do what the disciples did on that first journey of their own, we can show what it means to be a Christian and what Christ has done for us.

If we see the world as it is, we cannot change it. And if we try to force the world to change by the same methods we have been using in the past, then we will destroy the world.

On the other hand, if we have a new vision of the world, a vision in which we help others, in which we reach out to all the peoples, then perhaps we will see change. We will not see change overnight but it will come. Our vision of the world has to be the vision Christ had; otherwise we will not have a vision.

“Hard Times”


Meditation for July 20, 2014, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Genesis 28: 10 – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43

And the scripture tells us that Jacob took a stone and made a pillow out of it. Even now, so many years after I first read that passage, I still don’t see how Jacob slept that night.

My pillow is very special to me; I once had a pillow that carried my head at nights while growing up and going to school. It finally died, of course, and I have sought to find another one that gives me such comfort.

Maybe that’s why Jacob had the dream of the angels climbing the stairway to heaven. With a stone for a pillow, you aren’t going to be comfortable and perhaps a little more open to a dream. But in the end, that hard pillow leads to an encounter with God that says the future will be better than the present.

I cannot help but think that we are experiencing hard times. I will even admit that when I see the news and all the troubles that circle this world I begin to think that maybe those who have predicted these are the End Times may be right after all.

But the problem with that scenario, at least for me, is that those who prophecy that these are the End Times feel that only certain people are going to win and that it is all fixed. I have never really liked the idea that the outcome was fixed before we even started, though there have been times when I was certain I wasn’t playing on a level playing field (read the Bartlett High School in band competition in 1966 and 1967; but that’s for another time).

The Gospel reading for this Sunday would also suggest that there is a fixed outcome and that, come Judgement Day, the good will be separated from the evil, the good will survive and the evil will perish.

Where does that leave us? First, what seed are we that got planted in the field. In Clarence Jordan’s translation of Matthew, he uses the term “certified seed”. Farmers know that is seed that is clean and ready to plant, with no weeds or other items that might interfere with the planting process. That is seed that has been prepared for the planting; the seed that the enemy sows has just about everything imaginable in it and when it is planted, who knows what might pop up.

So, are we the seed that was certified? Are we the seed that has been processed and purified? If we are to be planted in the fields, it would be nice to know that we are ready to be planted.

My problem with a vision of the End that says that certain people will win and others will lose always says that this is worked out in advance. And that doesn’t give much hope to those people who aren’t on the “good” list.

But that isn’t what Jesus said or did? Yes, he did say that the good will survive and the bad will lose. But He also gave us the opportunity to become one of the good and cast away our bad life. And yes, that is a hard choice to make at times. We want the good life now, not later.

And yet, that is what Paul is telling the Romans; the good life comes later but you have to give up the bad life right now!

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that reactions don’t always go right away. Certain factors have to be in place and occasionally you have to add a little something to the process to get the reaction going. But after the reaction gets going, things go pretty well.

Sure these are “hard times” but they will only remain such if we let them. We have been given a great opportunity to see a future that is beyond description but we have to make some choices right now.

Maybe we don’t need to sleep with a stone fr a pillow but I know that the decision not to follow Christ could cause us to toss and turn all night long, undoubtedly like Jacob must have done. In our discomfort, perhaps we will see the path that we will lead us out of our own hard times and into the good times.

But it doesn’t take a pillow of stone for us to change our lives; all it takes is for us to open our hearts and minds to Christ and give up the hard life of sin and death for the good life in Christ.

“Two Roads”


These are my thoughts for the Friday evening “Vespers in the Garden” worship and Saturday morning worship service at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY).

This is the fourth year that we have held the “Vespers in the Garden” series on Fridays and the third year that we will hold the service on Sundays. The gardens at Grace are an interesting place as they offer an interesting counterpart to the street scene of Newburgh. And on a hot summer day, there is more often than not a cool breeze passing through the garden.

Vespers in the Garden start at 7 on Fridays and Sundays and will run through Labor Day. Come on over if you get the chance and let me know if you might be interested in presenting the message one time or providing the music.

We open the doors of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at 8 am on Saturday morning, have a brief worship service at 8:10 and then serve breakfast at 8:30. Generally, we stop serving at 9:45. Everyone is welcome to come and be a part of this Saturday morning community.

I am using the Scripture readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (C), 30 June 2013 – 2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25; Luke 9: 51 – 62.

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It is always interesting to see how the lectionary, a collection of readings formed by a committee many years ago, always offers the right words for the right time. There are, of course, many ways that one could look at why this is and perhaps one day we might do that.

But that would, I think, turn into academic discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (see “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem”). Such discussions are perhaps best left for the quiet solitude of some ivory-covered tower though I did discover that currently safety standards impose a 4-angel limit because Congress passed the Angel Safety Law which also requires that the pin be inspected for structural defects twice a year.

Still, if the the words contained in the Bible are to have any meaning in and for today’s society, they must speak to the moment at hand. If they do not, the Bible quickly becomes a tired old book of history languishing on someone’s bookshelf. And that is what the readings for this weekend do; they speak to the moment at hand what we must do at this moment and in this place and time.

And in looking at the Old Testament reading I thought of the Robert Frost poem which gives me the title for the message, “The Road Not Taken.” And while the poem speaks of the author leaving, it is perhaps the scene of the two roads that diverge that is appropriate for this time and place.

I knew, when I first looked at the Scripture readings for this weekend that this would be Pastor Frank’s last weekend at Grace, though I did not know where he was going nor did I know who was coming to continue the work of the ministry that has been in this place for so many years. I also did not know at that time that this would also be Pastor Mike’s last weekend.

And so, on a weekend where there is a transfer of power and leadership in so many United Methodist Churches, the Old Testament reading today talks about the transfer of power and leadership from Elijah to Elisha. There is, perhaps, a certain degree of fear in Elisha’s voice as he insists on going with Elijah, even when he does not know where Elijah is going. And Elijah knows that Elisha really can’t go with him.

But Elisha insists on tagging along until he receives some token of Elijah’s life. When Elijah asks him, Elisha says that he wants Elijah’s life repeated in his.

Pastor Frank and Pastor Mike, each in their own way and manner, had done that, provided something in leadership, wisdom, and guidance that takes the ministry of Grace (Newburgh) to the next level. They have provided a sound foundation for Pastor Hooker to take Grace where it needs to go, even if that destination is still unknown.

The impetus for this Saturday worship came from Pastor Frank and when we gather together next Saturday and each Saturday after that, our gathering will be a reflection of the ministry that he brought to Grace when he came last September. And each one of us, whether we have worked with Pastor Frank and/or Pastor Mike or just visited and talked with them, will know that they have had some influence in the path we know must walk.

And as they walk their own paths, their encounters and their work with each one of us will have some influence on where they walk and how they work with their new congregations.

But it isn’t just a matter of Pastor Frank and Pastor Mike walking down some road, leaving us standing at a crossroads not knowing which way to go or hoping that Pastor Jeff has a road map. It is about where each one of us is headed.

Do we go home and resume our regular lives, as if nothing happened? Or has something happened here and now that says perhaps we need to walk down a different path, a different road?

Susan Engle, Paducah (KY) District Lay Resource Leader (Memphis Conference), wrote the following about what the laity of the United Methodist Church needs to think about in the coming days and discussion about the life and vital of the local church:

Worship on Sunday is not entertainment, and we are not the audience. Worship is a time for us to gather, hear God’s word, get filled up, and go in the power of the Spirit to change the world. If you go home and nothing changes, in you or in your world, it’s time to stop and consider where you are disconnecting. Where there is life, there is growth. If all of your God stories are from years ago, it might be time to take your spiritual pulse. “Things for the United Methodist laity to unlearn – from a lay person’s POV”

Worship, be it on a Friday or Sunday evening in the garden, a Saturday morning in the Fellowship Hall, or a Sunday morning in the sanctuary, is meant to be a time of connection with God. But you cannot leave that connection behind.

It is easy, I know, to let our life get in the way that we want to walk. Sometimes it it is the mundane things; sometimes it is the extraordinary things. But whatever the reason, we quickly see our walk with Christ as a secondary thought, something that is done after all the other stuff is taken care of and as long as it doesn’t get in the way.

Paul speaks of legalism, of using the law to justify what one does. For some it was the law that gave them the power and authority to tell others what to say and do. But such laws bind one to a life of slavery, not freedom. Even today, people create laws to divide society, to say who can do what, who has the power, or how one can live.

And we, individually, create our own internal laws, saying that we can only do this or we can’t do that, if only to justify that which we do each day. We spend so much time trying to justify our present condition and life that we cannot see how trapped we have become. We speak of our freedom and yet we live as a slave.

Paul points out that we have a choice in how we live. It is very interesting that what some would call freedom, Paul says is slavery. And he, very pointedly, points out the difference between the two.

I don’t know if Paul was thinking of the future when he wrote his letters to the early churches and gatherings. Someone once said that if he was doing that he should have been more careful in what he wrote. We know that he was writing to a group of people in a specific time and place and yet his words apply very much to this time and place. That may speak to our own inabilities and not his ability to see the future.

Our society is very much a selfish, self-centered society. It is very much what is best for the individual and how society can help the individual. Paul points out that the free spirit is very incompatible with this selfishness, this self-centeredness. Your energies are wasted when focused inwardly on your self; they multiply when they focus outwards, to helping others

So we come to this time and place, a crossroads not only in the life of this church but in our own lives. In a few days, Pastor Mike and Pastor Frank will be with their new churches and our new pastor will begin the process of settling in to his role.

And there we will stand, contemplating which road we must walk. We can choose to walk the road that is the same road we have walked each day, convinced that nothing we do can change our lives.

Or we can choose to walk that road that Jesus is walking, leaving behind all of our baggage and all that has burdened us and kept us enslaved.

The choice to walk the road with Jesus is our choice and our choice alone. We cannot force others to walk with us nor should others force us to walk with them. As much as some of the disciples wanted to bring wrath and destruction down on those who refused to walk with Jesus (and how many times have we heard that in today’s society), Jesus just said leave them alone and just continue the walk.

Some will not like the uncertainty of that walk, favoring to continue their own private walk that keeps them entangled in slavery.

But others will begin to understand that to walk with Jesus is a chance to be free from slavery to sin and death and, as Paul pointed out, a chance to open up and express the freedom of the spirit.

Each of us has come to that crossroad, that intersection of two roads. Which path will you take?

“The Power of the Gospel”


Here are the thoughts that I presented for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden series on July 8th.   I based my thoughts on 2 Corinthians 12: 1 – 10 and Mark 6: 1 – 6.  If you are in the area, we hold the Vespers in the Garden on Fridays and Sundays at 7 in the evening.  If you are interested in leading one of the Vespers, let me know and I will tell you who to contact.

There are presently three pieces sitting on my “desk” right now that all, in some manner, shape or form, deal with God. The first, which is to be the 1000th piece posted to my blog and comes almost seven years to the date after I posted my first piece, deals with the Higgs boson and what it means to me. – see “The God Particle and the Search For Truth”

For the uninitiated and uninformed, this interesting little sub-sub-atomic particle was nicknamed the “God particle” by someone in the press because practically every physicist who dabbles in the make-up of the atom believed long before the actual discovery that the particle did exist. It as an act of faith, if you will, that someone would discover it.

The second piece on my desk and which I hope will be published deals with the relationship between God and government. This too comes at an appropriate time, with the celebration of the 4th of July last week and the 2012 Presidential election well in motion. But it is not a description of the role that Jesus offered when he pronounced that we give to Caesar what was Caesar’s and we give to God what was God’s. Nor will it be in the manner of Paul who spoke of the allegiance that we are to give the government while at the same time maintaining our allegiance to Christ. Rather, it is more along the lines that our allegiance to God leads us to disdain and ignore government, almost to the point of anarchy. I have already discovered in the process of thinking about this article that anarchy need not be the violent, revolutionary model that is often associated with it and that there is quite a bit of writing on Christian anarchy. If nothing else, it may shake the dust and cobwebs out of the minds of some people.

The third article that I am contemplating is one that I wrote many years ago but could never get published. The magic of writing a blog is that one becomes one’s own publisher and I thought that I should put this one up before I forget where I stored my notes. It is an article about my brief encounter with George Burns, who as we all know played God. See “George Burns and I”.

But what is important for us is that we see the link that binds them together. For such is the power of the Gospel, to take one beyond the limits of mind and body. This is, in part, what Paul is referring to in the passage from Corinthians that we read this evening. Did Paul, who was of course referring to his transformation from Saul to Paul, actually lifted up to the heavens? What the transformation an actually out-of-body experience? Paul won’t say, in part because the expression of heavenly experiences were often used as a means of claiming divine authentication. In addition, Paul’s opponents would use such an approach in opposition to Paul’s message.

What Paul is trying to do, in what is called his fool’s message, is show the transformation that comes through the Gospel. No longer is the man before you Saul, the persecutor, but Paul the evangelist. What Paul is telling the Corinthians, what he is telling us today is that we can undergo the same transformation, we can have the same life-changing experience. How we see ourselves is really dependent on how we see God in our lives and what we are to do with that transformation.

This can be a frightening thing, for both ourselves and for those around us. We will see the world around us in a new way just as others will see a change in us. For each one of us, this change is also a challenge because we cannot do the same things that we have done; in fact, we are often challenged to do more.

The beauty of the discovery of the Higgs boson is that is shows us what happens when we open our mind. And I have to think that Jesus wanted us to open our minds as well as our hearts. His lessons were not always easy to learn until we stopped and thought about them; his parables were simple stories with a deep meaning that only came when we stopped to think about them. There were those who had ears but could not hear and eyes but could not see. We know that the disciples had trouble with the stories; they feared the challenges that were placed in front of them. But they were also told that they would never do it alone, that the Holy Spirit would fill them and envelope them and empower them.

There are those, of course, who would have us limit what we see, especially when it comes to the Bible and our faith. Now, these individuals need not be fundamentalists who would seek some sort of Old Testament theocracy or even extreme secular humanists who would have us deny the existence of God in all manner, shape, and form. These individuals are more likely to be what I have come to call “Sunday Christians.” They dutifully come to church every Sunday, never missing a service. But they don’t do much when the service is over. And if someone should attempt to fiddle with their Sunday morning service and its accompanying ritual, make no mistake, someone will receive a full measure of wrath and fury.

Don’t even think of altering the music; it has been organ music since time immemorial and it will be organ music until the day that they die. It doesn’t matter that such persons only know one or two songs in the hymnal; that is really all that is needed, now isn’t it?

But don’t get me wrong. There are some in this vein who have adopted the more contemporary music style and it was a hard fought fight to make the change. And since we made that change, it would be best if we kept it for awhile, even if most of the music means or says little in relationship to the Gospel.

And don’t fiddle with the Bible; the King James version has worked for over almost 500 years, why change? Didn’t Jesus speak in Elizabethan prose with thees and thous sprinkled liberally through his parables?

And don’t mess with the starting time. Church was meant to be at 10 am in the morning; who ever heard of having a church service on a Sunday evening at 7 pm in the summer. And church services are supposed to be held inside, not outside with all the traffic noise! Church services are supposed to be quiet and orderly, with everyone nodding in agreement with the lofty and pompous words of the pastor, if they are not nodding off.

Yes, I am being sarcastic (and it’s not the first time either see – “What Are We Supposed To Do?”). But it goes to the mindset of church today, a mindset that encompassed the people of Nazareth who could only see Jesus as Mary’s boy, brother of James, Justus, Jude, and Simon. They could only see Jesus as Joseph’s son, the carpenter.

But they weren’t the only ones. When Nathaniel Bartholomew was first introduced to Jesus by his friend Philip, what did he say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We do that today, characterizing someone by where they are from, how they speak, or any other number of social and economic measures. If you are only willing to see Jesus as Mary’s boy, Joseph’s son, a carpenter or someone from Nazareth, then you are unlikely to hear or see his message and the good that comes from it.

And we have to remember the opposition that John Wesley received when he tried to make changes in the Church of England. First he was barred from preaching in the churches, a ban which was applied to Methodists here in what were the colonies. Then when he began preaching in the fields and over the countryside, people were encouraged to disrupt the services and thrown stones at Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. These were not easy changes for Wesley either. Trained and comfortable with the formal sermon approach, to go into the field and preach extemporaneously was definitely outside Wesley’s comfort zone. But he understood that he must make the change if the people were to hear the Gospel and be empowered by the Gospel.

I suppose that it is possible to be transformed by the Gospel, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, and to accept the Holy Spirit as the empowerment in your life. But I don’t see how that would work. To say that you have been changed but then do nothing is to forsake all that you have been given. If Paul were here today, he would tell you of the great opportunities that lie before you because of your encounter with Christ. The power of the Gospel is that is gives you a new life, a life to do great things. How can you say no to that?

“Our Choices”


This is the message that I gave for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 June 2005, at Fishkill (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 6: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 40 – 42.

Technically, Fishkill was my home church and had been since I moved up to New York in 1999.

But from 1999 to 2002, I was the lay pastor at Walker Valley (NY) UMC and from 2002 to 2005 I was the lay pastor at Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC. But I had resigned my position at Tompkins Corners a month before in order to effect some needed changes in the structure (which, as you now from reading some of the posts I have put about, didn’t work and the church closed two years ago). So I was available to preach and the call came to come to Fishkill.

It was that noted Eastern philospher and Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra, who once noted that when you come to a fork in the road you should choose it (note added in publishing this piece – check out http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/6285 for a picture of a fork in the road – it is at the intersection of NY 199 and NY 308; when the churches in Milan and Red Hook were yoked together, you passed this in going from Milan to Red Hook). We are at a point in time where we have come to that fork in the road and we must choose which way to go. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” In other words, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Unfortunately, the people to whom Jeremiah directed these roads answered “we will not walk in the ways of the Lord.” Theirs was not a good choice.

We are continually faced with choices and, sooner or later, we must make a choice. Sometimes the choices are mundane, should we use paper or plastic? Other times, they are deep and insightful. Unfortunately it seems like many of the choices that we make today are made out of fear or misunderstanding.

Ever since September 11th (a date we can say without a year), we have been bombarded with ideas and thoughts that are based on fear or misunderstanding. Travel across the electromagnetic spectrum and listen, if you can, to the myriad talk shows on television today and all you hear is fear. Many preachers, claiming to be “the true voice of God”, and other talk show hosts pour invective on those who disagree with them about abortion, homosexuality, war, evolution, gun control, and the role of government. Such preachers and talk show hosts call out the troops, marshaling them to swamp their elected representatives with phone calls and letter on this and that issue on which we are told our faith and freedom hinge.

It is possible that some will say that I am trying to strike fear in your hearts today. As loud and vocal are the commentators on the right, so too are the commentators on the left just as equally vocal in their pronouncements that those on the right are trying to take away our basic freedoms of thought and choice. We are at a point in time and society where if you publicly state that you are a Christian you are labeled a fundamentalist and conservative. And if you claim to be a liberal in today’s environment (and are willing to pubicly state such), then you are labeled a secular humanist who does not believe in God, Christ, or the power of the resurrection and the Gospel.

But this dialogue, by both sides, blinds us to the work of faith activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence Jordan, and Dorothy Day whose work in the name of Jesus Christ and the Gospel is now considered to be “progressive”. And the arguments of both sides blinds them so that they cannot see the rigidity of their own ideological demands. It is almost as if we have turned the clock back in time to the days of Jesus and we hear the voices of the Pharisees and Sadducees seeking ways to discredit Jesus because they are blind to the message of hope, promise and justice that Jesus gave.

It has been said that the most common command in the Bible is “fear not.” It is a command that Jesus repeatedly gave to his disciples and followers; it is the command of the angel at the annunciation when Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah. When God’s presence with humanity is palpable, it takes away fear – fear of enemies, fear of the future. Yes, there is sin in this world and it must be named and resisted. But we cannot move into the future if we are afraid or fearful. (Adapted from “Fear Not”, Christian Century, June 14, 2005)

In this day of division, hatred, and destruction, there are those who have made a choice, have decided to walk a different path. As John Danforth, former senator from Missouri and an Episcopal minister, recently wrote in the New York Times, these are the moderates of Christianity. Instead of claiming to possess God’s truth, moderate Christians only claim to be imperfect seekers of the truth. Instead of dividing society, religion is to be inclusive, seeking to bridge the divisions between people.

Rather than arguing with those with whom we disagree, we must practice humility and tolerance. In a world based on fear and hatred, in a world of division and exclusion, we must follow the Lord who sat at the table with the tax collectors and sinners and welcome all into our midst. We must replace an agenda based on hatred with the one we were taught as children, that we are loved by God and that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (“Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers” by John C. Danforth, New York Times, June 17, 2005)

Against this background, it is clear that we must make a choice. It has to be a choice based on trust and understanding, not fear or blind obedience. Such an example of trust comes from the Old Testament reading for today.

Abraham was commanded to take his son Isaac to the mountains of Moriah where he is to sacrifice Isaac. From the very beginning of the story, it is clear that Abraham did not do this out of simple obedience to God, for he repeatedly says “Trust in the Lord.” I am sure that Abraham, given the choice, might have asked God about the wisdom of such a command. After all, God formed a covenant with Abraham in which he, Abraham, would be the father of many nations because he chosen to follow God. Abraham had already lost one son, Ishmael, and I am sure that he did not want to lose another one. But he does not question God, choosing rather to trust in Him.

At the end of the story God decides that his faith is worthy and provides a worthy and appropriate sacrifice to replace Isaac on the altar. Abraham’s faith and trust are rewarded. I do not think that we will ever see our lives tested in that same way, for we have already been given that worthy and appropriate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that we don’t have to make a choice anymore; Rather, it means that the choices that we make take on an even greater importance.

Paul notes that we are free to choose the path we wish to walk but we have to be careful which one we choose. For if we choose the path and life that makes us a slave to sin, the reward is death. But if we choose to walk the path set before us through Christ, even if some would say that it is a slavery no different from other forms of slavery, our rewards are righteousness and everlasting life. When we choose to follow God, we reap the benefit of holiness which are eternal life.

This narrative that Paul offers us can be a very confusing one to follow. How can one who is a slave ever gain anything? Does not the slave-owner keep everything? Paul notes that if we are slaves to righteousness, we gain everything. If we are slaves to sin, then we gain nothing. We are asked to see beyond the limits of our world and the limits of our own understanding. If we do not do so, then we are trapped in the limits of this world, unable to see the freedom offered by Christ.

So we must make a choice. In fact, we must make two choices. First, we must find a way to let Christ into our lives and then we must find a way to take Christ’s message out into the world. For if we cannot take the message out into the world, we will be trapped in a world of darkness and fear, unable to see the hope and promise of the Gospel message. If we really wish to respond to the fear, the violence, the oppression, the hatred that seem so ever present in this world today we must do so in such a way that does not simply use the same approaches. For violence only begets more violence, hatred breeds only hatred, and injustice will only lead to injustice. We must begin to think more in terms of witness and less in terms of worldly solutions. (Adapted from “Mine Wars”, Scott Williams, Christian Century, May 31, 2005)

We again hear the words of Christ spoken so many years ago. As we welcome Christ in our hearts so too do we welcome God into our lives. We offer the cup of water or aid someone less than us not because we think it will get us into heaven or wipe the slate clean of our own transgressions but because we are Christ’s disciples. And in doing so, we do not lose the reward that we gain through righteousness.

We must be willing to teach and learn about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. We must come to a place in our lives where we make a thoughtful decision to apprentice ourselves to Him, being willing to rearrange our thinkg and living according to His teachings and example. Out of our apprenticeship to Jesus we will find a way to remove the darkness and fear from the world.

It will be this commitment to Jesus that will direct our interaction with people. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that we should avoid treating our enemies with contempt or anger. It is very easy for us to become sinfully contemptuous of those with whom we disagree, no matter what the issue. But it is then we begin to lose the argument, no matter how logical, because we have abandoned the high ground and begun to disregard the teaching and example of Jesus.

(This was one of the times when I was confident enough to sing a solo as part of the sermon.)

Our words, our thoughts, our actions must be a reflection of our choice to follow Christ. That is how we will be able to stand up against the powers of war and destruction. That is how we will be able to silence the voices of evil and hatred that seek to divide this world. In opening our hearts to Christ, we will be to gain that which we do not have alone. Remember that he told us “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” If we ask Him, He will teach us. By His actions and words, we will be able to display gentleness, joy, and kindness in the midst of heated debate that will allow us to keep our heads while those around us are losing theirs. (Adapted from “What is Wrong With the World?” by Jim Hardenbrook, On Earth Peace, Summer, 2005) Our witness comes because of our response to Jesus and the way in which He came into this world.

Jesus came into this world humbly, not as an authority from above but as a humble servant. He came not to reveal an ideological system to be imposed on society but as the one who, in the way in which he gave himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He came as the one prepared to risk His truth and life within the openness of the secular world. When He was asked to identify Himself, either by displaying his authority or by giving a sign that would convince man of his supernatural powers, He refused. He had to be found and needs to be found within the openness of the secular world or not at all. This means that those who follow Him should not seek to impose our faith as a metaphysical form or as a religious or institutional means to provide society with stability and unity. Rather, we should seek to maintain an open secular world in which we claim no established rights over other views. In doing so, we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history and this world. It will be our words, our deeds, our actions and our thoughts which serve as the basis for our witness. Yes, there is some uncertainity in what we do. But as we accept this responsibility we must be willing to expect the unexpected; we cannot fear the future if our future is tied that of Christ. As Abraham journeyed from his home to Mount Moriah without fear but trusting in the Lord, so do we journey into the world and society of today trusting in the Lord and not fearing the future. (Adapted from Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williamson)

Now, you might say that this is all well and good but I am not prepared to make a choice at this time. I don’t even know what choice to make. So, as we prepare to sing our closing hymn this morning and close this service, I would like you to think about John Newton, the author of the hymn. John Newton was the captain of a slave ship plying the triangle trade between Africa, America and England. Ships would load up with guns, ammunition and manufactured goods in Britain and France, then sail for four months to West Africa where the cargo was exchanged for captured slaves. The ships would then make the middle passage across the Atlantic where the slaves were sold to individuals in the Caribbean and in the North American colonies. Finally, the ships loaded up with the sugar, tobacco and cotton produced in the colonies and sailed back to England and France where the raw produce was refined and re-exported to other countries. (http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/caribb/page12.htm)

But one day, during an extremely powerful Atlantic storm, Newton decided to accept Christ into his life. Contrary to common thought, he did not turn the ship around and return his human cargo to Africa; but he did change the way in which he treated his unwilling passengers and slowly but surely turned against the enterprise that made him a wealthy man. Eventually, he left shipping and began a study that would lead to his ordination in the Church of England. He also became an outspoken anti-slavery advocate. It was then that he began to write so many of the hymns that we sing today.

The words “that saved a wretch like me” are not metaphorical but a true biographical statement by a man who before he chose to follow Christ was a wretch. But in choosing to follow Christ, his life change and he was able to make changes in the world around him. He first made a choice to change his life and then to change the world.

So too are we faced with two choices. The first is to answer the call from Christ, no matter how it may come. The second is to take by our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions the Gospel message of Christ into the world.

These are our choices today. We do not have to make a choice today. But if we do not, then the world remains cloaked in darkness, fear and doubt. But, by making the choice to follow Christ and take His message out into the world, we bring light and hope into a world of darkness of fear, doubt and despair