“To Seek Freedom and Truth, We Must Ask ‘Why?’”

Here are my thoughts for July 4, 2021

Lectionary readings

  • Jeremiah 33:14-18
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34 Messiah and New Covenant
  • 2 Samuel 5:1-5
  • 2 Samuel 5:9-10
  • Ezekiel 2:1-7
  • 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
  • Mark 6:1-13

The focus of the message will be John 8: 31 – 47

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus stood before a gathering of religious and political leaders and told them that to be free they needed to seek the truth.  But these leaders scoffed at the notion they were not free, claiming that through Abraham, they had gained their freedom.

But their freedom was, at best, illusionary.  They had constructed a legal environment that limited their actions.  They had forgotten that the dietary rules they so strictly enforced came from health concerns during the Exodus and were not necessarily a requirement for faith.  They had criticized Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath while ignoring that it was permissible for a farmer to take care of an ailing animal.  There were also angry that Jesus sought to open a society that they sought to close.

These religious and political leaders were also blind to the realization that their power, their position, their prestige, and place in society were dependent on their subservience to the Roman political authorities.  In maintaining their lifestyle, they were slaves to the Roman political authority.

Spiritually and politically, they were not free but slaves to their prejudices, bias, and desire for power.

Two hundred and forty years ago, Thomas Jefferson sat in a hot and sweltering hotel room in Philadelphia and wrote what many consider the most radical of all political manifestos, a statement that the people have the right to determine their own freedom.  He wrote of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Even today, there is much debate what Jefferson was thinking when he wrote those words.  Over time, we have come to see that singular phrase, that “all men are created equal,” be all inclusive, meaning everyone, regardless of gender, sexual identity, financial status, race, creed, or color.

President John Kennedy once noted,

“the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Some 245 years later, we struggle to achieve that equality as there are those whose view of equality is limited and who see an expansion of equality as a threat to their power and prestige.

As a science educator, I see a society that hesitates to seek the future, trying desperately to stay in the status quo, forgetting, as Heraclitus noted,

“No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

The ruling class saw Jesus as the son of a working man, incapable of deep theological thought.  Somehow, they had forgotten that some twenty years before, Jesus has confounded and astonished the religious elite in the Temple.  It should be noted that the changes in physics in the early 20th century, changes that allowed the development of much of today’s technology, came not from the physics establishment but by younger physicists not bound by the boundaries imposed by the physics of that time.

Today, we are faced with many problems, problems that threaten our freedom as individuals, as a society, and as inhabitants of this planet. 

They are problems of science (climate change, a pandemic, a need for alternative energy); they are problems of equality, in all its forms.  Despite the cries and efforts of a minority, these are man-made problems, and as President John Kennedy noted, can be solved by man.

These problems require that we begin (again) asking the most fundamental question of all, “Why?”

As I noted in “Tell Me The Truth, But. . .”, I am the grandson of an Army officer and the son of an Air Force officer.  This gave me a view of the world different from my many classmates.  And I crossed the boundary from eleven to twelve, the age at which Samuel answered the call from God and Jesus debated the teachers in the Temple, I answer to call from God.

By the time I came to Memphis in 1966, I had chosen to walk two paths, one of faith and one of science.  Each of these paths leads to a definition of the truth.  I do believe there are several truths, some are found in the spiritual world, others are found in the physical world.  To seek the truth should be each person’s goal and the distillation of the facts to their simplest components is how we find that one single truth.  There may be a hint of Eastern mysticism in that, I am not sure (adapted from Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos | Thoughts from The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)

Let me just say that I am not interested in the post-modern definition of truth where one’s version of truth may differ from someone else’s.  That is for others in a different time and place.

The search for the truth in the physical world depends, in fact, demands that we ask “why?”

As a chemist, I know that there are certain fundamental truths, but these truths have changed over time as we have delved deeper and deeper into the nature of matter.  We have gone from indivisible particles called atoms to the discovery of the particles present at the beginning of the universe.  We have gone from an understanding of matter as simply being a combination of earth, air, fire, and water, to a collection of 118 elements that promises, with the development of new technologies and a better understanding of the technology, to continue to grow.

And just as there is a certain set of fundamental truths for the physical world, there is also a certain set of fundamental truths in the spiritual world.  These, I believe, are more difficult to discover for one must find themselves first. 

Part of the difficulty lies in the things that constitute the basis for this truth are often not visible or measurable (as might be the existence of atoms or elements).  President Jimmy Carter once noted,

What are the things that you cannot see that are important?  (2 Corinthians 4:18) I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love.  You cannot see any of those but they’re the guiding lights of a life.” – https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_power_corrupt_everyone_equally

It is not my responsibility to tell you how to think or what to believe; it is my responsibility, my duty, to show you how to answer the question of “why?” 

In 1969, I was a college sophomore struggling with the demands of college life, searching for meaning in my life.  Against that backdrop, I was beginning to ask how a Gospel message of hope and promise worked in a world of war, hatred, poverty, and ignorance.  As I prepared to travel to my home in Memphis for the Spring break, I asked my pastor, Marvin Fortel, if I could meet with him and take communion.  During the communion, I came to discover the true meaning of God’s grace.

That day, so many years ago, I came to understand that I work for justice and freedom, not because it will get me into Heaven but because it is my responsibility as a citizen of the Kingdom of God (adapted from “The Changing of Seasons”).

. . . it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder — Based on Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, author 0f The Orthodox Way  

When I was in college and on my own (as it were), I figured that I would be able to sleep late on Sunday mornings and skip out on church.  But then I discovered that I needed to be in church.  College brought up a lot of questions, some about chemistry, some about calculus, one or two about English and history.  But there were also a lot of questions about who I was and I found that the answers to those questions came when I was in church. 

I was lucky.  The pastors that I meet and worked with in college didn’t give me the answers to those questions.  They showed me the way to find the answers on my own. (Adapted from “Now It Is Your Turn!”)

There were some pastors, of course, who will tell you what the answers to the questions are and that you are not to question those answers.  I genuinely believe that had these individuals been my guide, I would have, as so many are doing today, left the church and the faith.

In a way, I still seek the truth, both in the physical world and in the spiritual realm.  And as I help others answer their own questions of “why?”, so too do I find the freedom that comes from seeking the truth.

In the Star Trek movie, “Resurrection”, Geordi La Forge, the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, asked Captain Picard if the regaining of his sight was worth it if others lose their homes and lives.  Our search from truth and freedom cannot come at the expense of others.  Rather our search from truth and freedom will come when we help others seek the same goals, to answer the same questions, all that being with “why?”

“The Cost of Freedom”

This will be the back page for the bulletin at Fishkill UMC on Sunday, July 1, 2018 (6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).  Services are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

If there is one common theme for this week, it would have to be freedom.  And invariably, when I think of freedom, I think of the flags Ann and I have but which we do not fly.  I also think of Richie Havens singing “Freedom” at the opening of Woodstock and Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing “Find the Cost of Freedom.”  The freedom of which CSN sang is the very freedom represented by the flags that the families, such as ours, were given by a grateful nation.  But the cost of freedom is also represented by Richie Havens singing.

Freedom doesn’t come automatically but after much effort; while Havens was improvising much of what he sang that day in August 1969, he couldn’t have done it without preparation and study.

Our own freedoms also do not come automatically but as the result of much effort by each of us and those who came before us.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we can never be truly free if there are others who are not free.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul commended them on their desire to excel.  But his commendation comes with a caveat; you cannot succeed at the expense of others, a thought later expressed by John Wesley.

Our freedoms today cannot be measured in society’s terms, for society sees things unequally.  If we are to be truly free, we must be willing to help others find the same freedoms we enjoy.

Christ died so that we may live; our freedoms are found through Christ.  Are we willing to help others find that same freedom?

~Tony Mitchell

“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.

“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?

“The Road Taken”

This was the message that I gave for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 July 1994, at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN). The Scriptures that I used for this message were Psalm 23 and John 14: 5 – 7.

I will use this title and the passage from the Robert Frost poem from which it comes in later sermons, sermons which mark the end of my time at that particular location. I do not remember if that is part of the reason that I used the poem in this message; I would again stand in the pulpit two weeks later and let every one know that I was leaving St. Cloud to return to Kansas.

The return to Kansas in 1994 did not go as I had hoped but it did mark the beginning of my lay speaking and ministerial career.

I want to take you on a little journey through the Ozarks. You start in the southeast corner of Kansas in the town of Oswego and head south on US 59. You will pass through several small towns until you are south of Miami, Oklahoma. There you turn east on US 60. Follow 60 until you get to Sikeston, Missouri, where it intersects US 61. Turn right on 61 and go one block. You now turn left again onto US 62. You then take 62 west down into Arkansas to Imboden where you come into US 63. Follow 63 south to Memphis where you pick up US 64. Take 64 west back through Arkansas through Little Rock to Conway. In Conway, go north on US 65 to Springfield, Missouri. This, by the way, will take you by Missouri 76 which is the cutoff to Branson. Try to time your drive so as to avoid most of the congestion (that would be about 2 in the morning). When you get to Springfield, take Interstate 44 to St. Louis. I-44 is the old US 66. Once you get to St. Louis, just a little south of Busch Stadium and the Arch, you intersect US 67. Take 67 south past the eastern edge of the Ozarks and the western portion of the Missouri bootheel until you get to Little Rock where you will get on Interstate 40, which is also US 70. Don’t worry about the skip in numbers. US 68 is somewhere in Ohio and a little too far away for this trip. Take I-40 towards Oklahoma. Now you have two options; you can stop at Fort Smith and go north on US 71 to Joplin or you can continue on until you get to US 69. For this trip the second option is the one you want. Once you get to the US 69 exit, go north on 69 to Columbus, Kansas.

Now I know that you probably haven’t got the slightest idea where you are. But, when you get to the intersection of US 69 and Kansas 96, assuming the Kansas Department of Transportation is through for the season (yes, Kansas has the same seasons as Minnesota – winter and construction), turn left and follow K-96 for about twenty minutes. If you do that, you will be right back where you started in Oswego, Kansas. I might also add that if you follow 96 for about another forty miles or so, you will be in Independence, Kansas, where Sandra lives. Stop by and say hi if you have the chance.

Now, it is one thing to get lost in the Ozarks. At least you know where you are and it is easy to get back to “civilization”. But what happens if you don’t have a map or directions to follow.

We are fast approaching the next century. The recent issue of U.S. News and World Report(July 11, 1994) notes that tomorrow, July 11th, there will be 2000 days until January 1, 2000. In the same report, it was reported that only 26% of Americans feel that the world will be in better shape when the next century comes around. Forty-two percent (42%) feel that the world will be worse. The road we are traveling on is coming to a fork. We must decide today which path to take.

We must also realize that we cannot turn to the government to provide the direction we should take. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If people are to have a firm sense of direction for the coming year, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church, and no one else.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower class were often forgotten. It was only the members of the upper class that 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 contend with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and the attitudes of society produced, many of the working class and poor turned to drugs and alcohol. I do not for sure but I would not be surprised if the statistics on domestic violence then are similar to the statistics today.

Wesley contended and argued that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that it was primarily because of the work by Wesley and his followers that England did not undergo the violent revolution that France did at the same time.

John Wesley understood the need for the church to present a message the people understood but a church blind to the needs of its members or its community cannot do its work. You cannot preach of the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood that an individual, having accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, had the responsibility to show that he had done so. This meant helping the community.

I had the opportunity two weeks ago to hear Dr. Rose Sims preach at Red Rock Camp. As John told you last week, she was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was also in a part of Florida that some had described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the church was closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet, today that church has over 350 members and is perhaps the central strength of a small town. If you get a chance, you should read the book she wrote describing the rebuilding of churches in Missouri and Florida. The best description of her work with the Florida church was written by a reporter, George Lane, of the Tampa Tribune. 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)

If you ask Dr. Sims how all of that was accomplished she will tell you it was because the work done at Trilby was done for Jesus. The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by work in the community.

We are being asked to do God’s work. The call to do God’s work is a very frightening thing. It is a call most people would probably not want to receive. And I am not talking about people just in our time. Consider the following statements.

“But, Lord, I have never been a man of ready speech, never in my life, not even now that you have spoken to me; I am slow and hesitant.” (Exodus 4:10)

That was Moses’ response when God called him to go the Pharaoh and begin the journey to the promised land. And then there was

‘Ah! Lord God,’ I answered, ‘I am not skilled in speaking; I am too young.’ (Jeremiah 1: 6)

That was Jeremiah’s response to being called by God to be a prophet.

Remember Jonah?. Jonah didn’t simply protest the call of God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God.

But to escape from the Lord Jonah set out for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board to travel with it to Tarshish out of the reach of the Lord. ( Jonah 1: 3)

Even Peter, the disciple on whom Jesus wanted to build his church, denied his Lord at the most crucial time.

Yet, there has never been a case where God called on someone to do his work and then left that person alone. He always provides the skills and the means to accomplish the task. To Moses, God said

The Lord said to him, ‘Who is it that gives man speech” Who makes him dumb or deaf” Who makes him keen-sighted or blind? Is it no I, the Lord?’ Go now; I shall help you to speak and show you what to say.’ (Exodus 4: 11 – 13)

To Jeremiah’s cry that he was unprepared, God replied

But the Lord said, ‘Do not plead that you are too young; for you are to go to whatever people I send you, and say whatever I tell you to say.’ (Jeremiah 1: 7)

In writing Psalm 23, David showed that God would provide the comfort, support, strength, and security one needed to do unpleasant tasks. Israel in the days of David was not a hospitable place. The valleys were not well lighted avenues but deep and dark inlets in the hills. The darkness of the valleys offered robbers excellent places in which to hide. One did not go into such valleys unless there was a very good reason. When Jesus spoke of shepherds seeking lost sheep, people understood the dangers involved and the extra effort it took needed for such searches.

God said the same to Jeremiah, “Fear none of them, for I shall be with you to keep you safe.” (Jeremiah 1: 8) If we accept the Lord in our lives, then we have nothing to fear from whatever road we travel.

So it is for us. We are like the disciplines at the Last Supper, wondering what will happen next. Turn to John 14. Jesus has just laid out the betrayal by Judas and the indicated that Peter would deny Him. But he also said

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you , I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14: 1 – 8)

When I began working on this talk, I thought of the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It is the last stanza of the poem which I turn to now.

I shall be telling this with a sigh,

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.(“The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost)

We are at a junction in our lives. Two roads stand before us. One looks like a pretty good road and it is the one that everyone else seems to take. The other road seems to be about the same though not many people take it. It is hard to tell which one we should take. But the decision is very simple. One road has a sign, an empty cross, which say to each one of us “Follow me”. And that is the road taken.

“Giving Your All”

This was the message I gave at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 June 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17 – 27; 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43.

– note – this was the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), not the 5th. –

It is during this week that the willingness of individual to give of themselves is probably more evident than any other time of the year. For it was this week some two hundred and twenty one years ago that fifty men put their signatures to the Declaration of Independence. Not all of them signed with the flourish that John Hancock did but sign it they did. And as each man signed this most important document in our country’s history, they knew that if the Revolution was a failure, that what they were signing was not a Declaration of Independence but rather their death warrant. For if the Revolution failed, the British would hunt each of the individuals down and hang them for treason.

In the reading from the Old Testament, David laments the death of Saul and Jonathan. He does so not because of who they are but for what they were doing at the time of their deaths. After all, Saul had been trying to kill David prior to the battle in which he lost his live but David knew that Saul’s death was a blow to the country. And that made the loss of Jonathan every more of a blow because of he was like a brother to David.

This week, we celebrate our country’s independence, but today we celebrate our independence, our freedom from sin. But to do that, we must first enter a new relationship with Christ.

It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be. St. Gregory declares that

“all holy desires heighten in intensity with the delay of fulfillment, and desire which fades with delay was never holy desire at all.” For if you experience less and less joy when you discover anew the sudden presence of great desires you had formerly pursued, your first desire was not holy desire. Possibly you felt a natural tendency toward the good but this should not be confused with holy desire. St. Augustine explains what I mean by holy desire when he says that “the entire life of a good Christian is nothing less than holy desire.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)

That is the step that Jarius had to take. As Jarius was the leader of the local synagogue, he knew that what he was about to, seek out Jesus and ask Jesus to save his daughter, could possibly lead to his disgrace in the community. But he also knew that the only hope for his daughter lie with Jesus and, knowing that this act could lead to further difficulties for him in society, he still came to Jesus.

The saving grace of Jesus is there for everyone but it requires that everyone make some sort of step towards overcoming the barriers that they have put up. And Jesus also showed that he would put up no barriers.

While Jesus is with Jarius, a woman comes up from behind to touch his robe. For this woman, coming to Jesus represents her last hope. Because of her twelve-year illness, this woman has been effectively banished from society. Deemed unclean, no one can help her and she has nowhere to turn to. She cannot even go to the synagogue to pray for help because, as an unclean person, she is not allowed to enter. She has nowhere else to turn to when she makes the decision to come to Christ.

Jesus’ reaction to the woman touching his robe shocked his disciples because they did not yet understand how much Jesus knows about each one of us. That woman was lost to society and yet Jesus knew she was there and he stopped everything he was doing to find her. Jesus gives us his all, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

It was not Jarius’ position as the leader of the synagogue which saved his daughter but rather his faith. Not everyone believed as Jarius did. When Jesus, Jarius, and the three disciples came to Jarius house, friends came to say that Jarius’ daughter was dead. All Jesus said was to keep the faith and all would turn out okay. His friends just laughed at this suggestion.

Only when he came to Jesus was he able to achieve what he was seeking. Jesus did not look at the woman’s illness or her standing in the community as a barrier to her being saved either.

And that is the same with us today. If we choose to look upon our lives in terms of what we now have, we will gain nothing. But if we give up such things and allow Jesus to come into our hearts, then we will hear Jesus say to us, just as he said to Jarius and the women, “Go in peace”, knowing that we are saved.

All week long, as I have worked on this sermon, I have thought of a song which has the words, “What can I give him?” This is a song which I have sung around Christmas time and it, as I recall, is the dilemma of what to the give the new born Jesus. The three wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they were gifts appropriate for a new-born King.

But for us today, all Jesus is asking is that we give wholly and freely of ourselves. As Paul writes in the beginning of the Epistle today

But just as you excel in everything, in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in our love for us — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

Such giving knows no boundaries, is not limited by who you are or what you do yet is offers unlimited rewards.

What We Receive

This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 12th.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19; Ephesians 1:3 – 14; and Mark 6: 14 -29

I will also be at Gaylordsville next week; services are at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.

This has been edited since first posted.


Why did you come to church this morning? Perhaps you had heard from someone that there was going to be an interesting speaker and you wanted to see or hear for yourself what you friends had said was true. Maybe you are here this morning because you have to be here; you have the keys to the building and if you aren’t here, people will come looking for you. Then again, you are here today because you didn’t have a choice, your mother or father told you that you had to come.

It is entirely possible, of course that you came to church this morning out of habit. For my family, church was part of the Sunday routine, along with pancakes and bacon for breakfast, Southern-fried chicken for supper and perhaps a pizza for dinner.

But even that routine became sadly boring and I found myself fighting tedium, boredom, and apathy during the service; so much so that my mother would routinely elbow me in order to keep me awake. And while I can’t remember who was preaching, I do know that even hellfire and damnation preachers have the extraordinary power to put me to sleep in church.

What were you expecting to receive from your relatively limited time here this morning? For too many people the answer to this question is they want is for church to be a microcosm of society. They want an hour or so (and really not more than an hour) away from the problems of the world; they want very simple topics and nothing that requires them to think or respond; and they want God to give them the solutions rather than being asked to solve the problems of the world.

And fair warning, if that is what you expect this morning, it is not what you are going to get. For every two or three people out there for whom Sunday and church are a limited amount of time that could be spent better elsewhere there is at least one person who is desperately searching for the answers to questions buried deep within their soul. These questions are so deep in their soul that most people cannot even say what the question might be; they only know that something is missing in their life and perhaps, just perhaps, the church can tell them what it is.

I can empathize with these people because there have periods in my life where I knew that something was missing. But for me, I knew what was missing; there are many out there who do not know what it is they are missing.

I have often said that I came to know Christ through the power of my mother’s elbow as she constantly poked me to stay awake as we sat in the pew of 1st Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. To get away from her elbowing me, I would sit in a pew myself; and for whatever reason, I began to think about pursuing the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts.

With my father’s transfer to Lowry Air Force Base and our move to the Denver area, I found myself attending the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church in Aurora, Colorado. The pastor of this church was George Edie and while I am not sure if he understood what the God and Country award meant, he agreed to guide myself and two others in the process of earning this award.

The one thing that you have to understand about this award is that it is an award that one seeks out of something internal, not external. Advancement in the Scouts does not require this award and this award is the only one that can be earned regardless on one’s Scouting rank. Those who seek the award as a “trophy” will find themselves falling short of the goal.

Somewhere in that period of growing up, going to church every Sunday, and working through the God and Country award, I came to know who Christ was. And while I may not have understood back in 1965 what this award really meant, other than it was a decision that I made on my own, the training and classes that I attended, the duties that I performed and what I learned kept me alive during the times that I have come to call the wilderness of my life.

And when I started to college and had the opportunity to no longer go to church if I didn’t want to, I found myself still going. But it wasn’t out of habit that I went to church; I found that if I didn’t go to church I was missing something that was a part of me and my life..

It may be that is why you are here today. You are seeking something, something that cannot be described or defined. It is something that cannot be physically felt but only be determined through the experience that comes with worship on Sunday mornings. The freedom of having Sunday morning open didn’t fill the void and I came to understand that what transpired on Sunday morning was a very necessary and important part of my life.

There are many today who have the same feeling, the same emptiness in their lives that I felt. But they don’t know where to turn; they don’t know who has the answers to the questions that they aren’t even capable of asking. There is something missing in their lives but they don’t know where to turn.

They may feel that the church is the place to find the answer. But how can the church help? They know of the Bible and they know who Jesus Christ was, but they see their knowledge in terms of the past, not the present.

C. S. Lewis wrote

… Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of a map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God – experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion – all about feeling God in nature, and so on – is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map. (From The Joyful Christian by C. S. Lewis)

What Lewis is saying is that without the real experience of God in one’s life, it is impossible to turn book learning into real Christianity. We might feel that we are Christians because we have studied the Bible and know about Christ. But until you experience Christ as your own personal Savior, all that training and study are no more than what Peter would call “cleverly invented stories” (2 Peter 1: 16).

But where do you come into contact with Christ? Where do you receive that one little spark that transforms Christ from the person revealed in the history books into the individual who transcends time and place?

The problem is that the church, at times, seems out of touch with today, speaking in a language from the 17th century; other times behaving as if this were the 19th century instead the 21st century. And when the words of the church do not reflect the words of the Bible or when the words of the Bible do not reflect the words of society, those who seek answers to questions that they do not understand will go elsewhere to find the answers.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that God will understand those who speak in tongues but no one else will know what they are saying. But when one proclaims the truth in everyday speech, then others can begin to know the truth. (1 Corinthians 3: 2, 4)

Church is no longer a worship experience, a time to recharge the soul but a momentary point in time required by society. It is no longer the place for the soul but a place for society. And in a society where it seems that every minute of the day and the week is to be blocked out and accounted for, time on Sunday morning to be in worship gets shunted aside.

To be sure, many in the church today are aware of the gap that exists between those who are in church and those outside. And they are working on reducing that divide. But I am afraid that the methods that are being used are more in line with society’s methods than they are with God’s methods.

If you will allow me the analogy, the church’s response in this day and age is like Herod’s promise to his daughter. The church willingly makes a deal that pleases society but compromises its soul. And in the end, the deal that is made is destructive to all parties. To bring people into the church requires more than simply responding to the needs of society. It must be willing to set itself apart from society so that people understand what is happening.

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday (2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5 and 12 – 19) is about the triumphal entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. In the second portion of the reading, David dances in joy in front of the procession but David’s joy brings anger to the heart of Michal, the daughter of Saul and sister of Jonathan. There is more to that story which we will save for a later date.

It is the first part of this Scripture that we must focus on in the context of what the church is trying to do. In verses 1 – 5, we read

They placed the Chest of God on a brand-new oxcart and removed it from Abinadab’s house on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab’s sons, were driving the new cart loaded with the Chest of God, Ahio in the lead and Uzzah alongside the Chest. David and the whole company of Israel were in the parade, singing at the top of their lungs and playing mandolins, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, so Uzzah reached out and grabbed the Chest of God. God blazed in anger against Uzzah and struck him hard because he had profaned the Chest. Uzzah died on the spot, right alongside the Chest.

Now, this is one of those passages that critics of the church probably love, for it doesn’t make any sense that God would kill someone who was trying to protect the Ark of the Covenant. But the Ark was being transported on a cart, not carried as prescribed in Exodus 25: 14 and Numbers 3: 30 – 31; the Philistines had captured the ark and placed it on a cart to be carried away as a war prize, not as essential part of the worship service.

And David, as we would be, was angry at God for killing Uzzah because Uzzah’s actions were unintentional. But God had told the people what the penalty for failing to respect the Ark would be; it was not Uzzah’s attempt to keep the Ark from touching the ground that was the problem, it was the fact that when the Israelites had recovered the Ark and failed to respect its sacredness that caused his death.

And what the church has done today is remove the sacredness from the service in order to say to society, “look, we’re cool, we’re hip, we understand what you want.”

When we remove the sacredness from our worship service in an effort to bring people in, we end up losing more people than we gain. When you remove the sacredness you remove the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to be a part of the service and if the Holy Spirit is not part of the service, it is not possible to answer those questions that so trouble you.

Sacredness is not a set of rules but an attitude, one of respect and thoughtfulness. Sacredness is not found in the traditions of worship but the reasons for worship. There are many ways of holding worship, from the place it is held to the music that is sung.

I have held worship services outside in the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains that were as meaningful as a formal, high church service in a elaborate and ornate sanctuary. When I started really lay speaking, driving some 185 miles on a Sunday to preach at three years in southwest Kansas, I would listen to a radio broadcast of hymns and praise from London that was transmitted over the local NPR station. It was a quiet and peaceful way to begin that day’s work. And even know, I am able to listen to WFUV, Fordham University’s radio station. Before service is a time of quiet and what I call folk music; afterwards, the station broadcasts the mass and it gives me the opportunity to reflect on the message that I prepared as well as listen to someone else’s interpretation of the Scriptures for that Sunday.

My wife and I are hosting a Friday night vesper service in the gardens of our church (“Friday Night Vespers in the Garden”) and while the numbers may not be what we would have liked them to be, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is present with those who have gathered together.

No matter where you might hold a church service, if it is done with respect, it will be a time when the Holy Spirit comes down and is part of the service.

The same can be said about the music played in a church service. I don’t mind variations on traditional church music. After all, I once proposed a worship service that focused on the music of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Cream (“A Rock And Roll Revival”). As I fiddled with this “modern” service I discovered that an order of worship involving the music of the group U2 has also been created (see “Rock and Revival Revisited”; it should also be noted that this is a particular order of worship to be used for a specific service). Even Duke Ellington has written a number of liturgical pieces. To me, if the music moves your soul, then it has a place in the worship service.

But when we get away from sacredness of the service; when things are done because it is the easy way or that’s way it has always been done, then we begin to lose the meaning of the moment. And for those who need that moment, it is often the time that they turn away from the church. Note that I am not talking about the seriousness of the moment. It is quite easy to have fun while worshipping and celebrating the presence of Christ and God in our lives. Should we not sound the trumpets and bang the cymbals? But, in the words of the Preacher, “there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 4). There is also a time to tear down and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3: 7).

This is a great time for the church, if we would but take it. We live in a time when mankind has the power to master the world, even destroy it. It may not be through nuclear war, as it was for so many of us who grew up in 1950’s and 1960’s but the crisis of weather, the crisis of money, the crisis of belief are all things which can lead to the destruction of the world. And the answers that many people are giving in response are far too simple and far too shallow to adequately explain and predict what we must do as individuals and as a society.

The church as a denomination, as a group, and individually must be there to help people answer the questions that they seek answers for. We must be the church that we once were, not the church we are today.

Christ once said that we need to seek the truth and the truth shall set us free. And that is what so many people want, the truth and the freedom. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that we have gained that freedom through Christ. The question then is how we as individuals, as a single church, a denomination, and as Christian respond to the needs and desires of those who do not know Christ but seek answers to the questions deep within their lives?

We have seen that the traditional evangelical response of telling people that the answer lies in Christ and if they don’t accept Christ as their Savior then they are doomed doesn’t work. You cannot ask someone to follow Christ without first showing them how Christ is at work in the world. You cannot call someone to conversion without enabling them to see how Christ calls each one of us to repent of our prejudices and to be open to the fullness of life in which there is no black or white, no rich or poor, no free or slave? To do otherwise is practice an evangelism that is a false witness – a religious escape from Christ’s demands.

What we are called to do today is an evangelism in which a call for Christ is related to a decision in Christ; to a call to be free for the presence with Christ within the struggles of our time. It is not an easy task. The death of John the Baptist was put into Mark’s Gospel as a reminder that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be an easy one.

In coming to Christ, we have received the gift of life, a life free from slavery to sin and death. And having received that gift, we know must go out into the world and share that gift through our words, our thoughts, and our actions.

On a Mission From God

Here is the 3rd of the Friday Night in the Garden Vespers series.


My first thoughts when I read the Scripture reading for this evening was the comment made by Jake and Elwood Blues in the movie “The Blues Brothers” that they were on a mission from God. As we read today’s scripture, we hear Jesus speaking of the Holy Spirit watching over His disciples and followers and those who will follow them.

In the verses before this prayer, Jesus has spoken of the mission and the sanctification of his followers. He is confident that they will spread the Gospel and His prayer is for all those, present and future, who believe. It is interesting to note that He is also praying for the unity of the believers, for it will be this unity that will show those who hear the message of its validity. Jesus’ prayer is a rebuke of the groundless and often bitter divisions between believers.

But the church today has taken this unity to the extreme. Instead of being the church for all believers, it is the church for only selected believers. When a church decides that it is more important to take care of what is in the present or the past, it has no vision for the future. Instead of the mission being the spread of the Gospel, the mission has become one of using the Gospel to decide who may become part of the church.

Jesus, in His prayer, speaks of the Father dwelling in the Son and the Son dwelling in those who believe in the Son. Because the latter is a reality the former can take place as well. And in this unity of the believers, the mission of the church can be completed successfully. For some the mission of the church is to tell the people about the Gospel but the Gospel has no meaning if it is not lived in the words and deeds of those who tell the message. When we look at this garden, we are reminded of the efforts that have gone into and continue to go into its care and upkeep. So too is the mission of the Gospel not completed unless it is taught and explained; you cannot accept the Gospel message unless you know what it is and it has no meaning if those who speak and teach the Gospel message also live the Gospel message.

The prophetic tradition of the Bible speaks in both broad and narrow terms. It broadly condemns the oppression of the poor and the needy, and it expresses outrage at the abuse of the specific individuals. The Gospel message speaks of bringing healing to the sick and invalid, of sight to the blind, of sounds to the deaf, and voice to those who cannot speak physically or through society. We are asked to continue this message and this tradition; we are on a mission from God.

Build It and They Will Come

This is the message that I gave on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 20 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30-34, 53 – 56.


It is one of those little bits of trivia that even though I claim Memphis, Tennessee as my home, I have only been to Graceland when forced to go or by accident. If you were to ask me how to get there, I honestly could not tell you. Similarly, even though I have ties to Iowa, I have no idea where the “Field of Dreams” is located. It does exist and it is in Iowa but that is all I know.

The problem with certain locations or certain phrases is that they become a part of our lives whether we want them to or without any encouragement on our part. The phrase “build it and they will come” was the cornerstone of the movie to build a ball field in the cornfields of Iowa so ball players of the past could come back to life and play baseball. It is now a phrase that is used to justify almost any project in which we want people to come.

David wanted to build a temple for God, a place to house the Ark of the Covenant. There is, to some extent, some logic to David’s thoughts and desires. After all, he was living in a fine palace while the Ark was still housed in a tent. And if you are a leader whose position is ordained by God, shouldn’t God’s house be a better place to live than the one you live in?

But God, through Nathan, indicated that He was quite satisfied with the arrangements. After all, over the past years, the Ark had been housed in a tent among the people and nothing had been said then. So why worry about it now? God, again through Nathan, points out that the only house that really matters is the house of David and God promised to insure that house would live for a long time.

God wasn’t so much interested in the physical building as much as He was in those who live there. And I think that is a most important idea. It is not where the message of the Gospel is heard but if the message is heard. We need to know that when the Methodist revival was in its infancy, the Anglican Church barred its leaders, including Wesley, from preaching in the Anglican churches of the time. So they moved to the fields and preached to the people there. And because the laws barred them from meeting in churches, they created meeting houses and had class meetings rather than worship services to get around the law. There is a need to send the presence of God during worship and that comes from within the people, not from within the building.

There is no doubt that we need to have some place to worship. As soon as stable congregations formed, Methodists built houses of worship. These early meeting houses were simple structures, without ornamentation and designed to accommodate as many people as possible. The Book of Discipline from the first conference of 1784 stated, “Let all our chapels be built plain and decent; but not more expensive than is absolutely unavoidable: otherwise the necessity of raising money will make rich men necessary to us. But if so, we must be dependent upon them, yea; and governed by them. And then farewell to the Methodist discipline, if not doctrine too.”

The rationale for this approach was that expensive churches required money that could be used for better purposes. And early Methodists also feared that extravagantly constructed churches would lead to pride and vanity and lower the spiritual tone of the church. In addition, many of the early Methodists were poor and could not afford nor would they feel at home in elaborate buildings.

From my own experience, I know that when a church is more concerned with its appearance and its physical plant, its concern for the people comes second. Now, there is no doubt that we need to have a good building to hold our services in but we need to focus on what transpires in the meeting, not where the meeting is held. I have preached at the Stone Church over in Cragsmoor, near Ellenville, and it is a lovely old stone church built in the late 1800’s. It had fallen on hard times and had begun to fall apart. Even the Episcopal Church had written it off, saying it was not worth the time and effort to assign a pastor to that area. But a number of people felt that its heritage and beauty were too great to let go and have worked diligently over the years to bring it back. And they have succeeded.

Regular services are held with pastors of the local churches providing the worship leadership. And they have opened the church to couples seeking a spot for a wedding. The couples must do everything including providing for the preacher to hold the service. A reasonable fee is charged to hold the service on the grounds of the church. But having the wedding in the Stone Church is no guarantee that the marriage will be successful. The success of a marriage is found not in where the marriage is held but what is in the marriage. Just because a marriage ceremony was performed in a beautiful old church or the expanse of a broad field in a park will not make the marriage work; it will be the desires of those in the marriage who make it work. The setting will make it that much better.

It is not the building that makes a church successful; it is the people inside the church. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus are meant as a reminder that there was a time when members of the church would not have been welcome in the tabernacle. He wanted people to remember that there was a time of exclusion and discrimination in the church. There was a time when those called the “uncircumcised” were derided and ridiculed.

This was in part because there was a membership requirement to enter the temple or the tabernacle. And that membership requirement separated you from God. But through Jesus, that membership requirement was removed and there was no separation between individuals, no barrier preventing you from coming to Christ.

Unfortunately, despite this message of inclusion, there are many churches in this country today who forget that all who believe in Christ have equal access to Christ and that there is no membership requirement. I have seen too many churches that are more of a country club than a church. Membership is dictated by what you have, not who you are. And the members are quick to remind you, perhaps in unstated ways, that you are not welcome.

People come to a church because they are searching, searching for that something that will bring peace to their lives. They will not come to places were they are not welcome or where barriers are placed in their way.

The people came to Jesus no matter where he was. As it stated in Mark, wherever Jesus went, the people brought their sick friends so that they could be healed. Jesus did not establish barriers; He broke them down. He extended God’s mercy to all the people, not just a select few.

The saying goes that if we build it they will come and that is certainly true. But if the people are not made to feel wanted, they will not come a second time. I think that one of the reasons that many of the main-line denominations have shown a loss in membership over the past years is that they no longer make people welcome. They no longer remember the days when they were the ones on the outside looking in. It is not what we did that brought us to Christ but rather what God did for us.

If in building our church, we put up barriers we will most certainly keep people out. And that is not what the church, whether a fancy building or simple shack, is about. It is about bringing the people in, of being able to give the Gospel message to all whom would here it. The barriers may not be that visible; they may be in the way we greet someone or talk with someone. It may be in how we react to what someone says to us.

The people will come but will they stay? The people came to hear Jesus, to be in his presence no matter where He was that day. And God is quite content to be among the people, no matter where that might be. But we should remember what Paul wrote, that once we were the ones on the outside and barred from ever coming in. Shall we put up barriers that keep people away or shall we extend the spirit of Christ, just as it once was extended to us?

This Is That Time

I am preaching at Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Mahopac, NY, and Holmes United Methodist Church in Holmes, NY, this morning. These are the thoughts that I hope to present for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. (And yes, I know, it is a long one but I had a lot to say this morning.)

When I began planning this sermon I was intrigued by the combination of dancing in today’s readings from the Old Testament (1) and the New Testament (2) reading. In part it reminded me of the reading from Ecclesiastes that begins “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (3)

Verse 4 of the passage from Ecclesiastes tells us “that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn; and a time to dance.” (4) The New Testament reading with its description of the death of John the Baptist brings us mourning while the return of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament reading clearly is a time for dancing.

But in the middle of the Old Testament reading for today is a verse that just doesn’t seem to fit.

“As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” (5)

Later, in verse 20, Michal curses David for his behavior in the streets.

Why was Michal so angry with David? The story of Michal and David was both a love story and a tragedy. She had fallen in love with the handsome young warrior before he had fought Goliath and this love grew with his heroism. But as her love for David grew, she also became estranged with her father, King Saul. She had risked her life in order to save David and this only caused the separation between her and her father to deepen.

Perhaps in retribution for this act, Saul gave her to another man, Palti, in marriage. While married to Palti Saul and her brother Jonathan died in battle and her other brother, Ishbosheth, was murdered by assassins. When David returned from battle, he demanded that Michal be returned to him. While we may be confused about how someone married to someone else can be given to a third party in marriage, it was apparently proper and good to do so in Old Testament times.

Even if the reasons for her marriage to Palti were not hers, it appears that Michal had come to love him, as it is recorded that she wept uncontrollably when she was returned to David. And her despair must have grown even more with the reunion with David; for David was no longer the young, courageous warrior that had served her father’s household. Now David was king and she would have to share or compete with six other wives for his affections and attention. For those keeping track, Michal is married to two men and David has six wives. This definitely fits into the Old Testament definition of marriage being between one man and one woman.

It is not likely that David’s actions in today’s reading were the sole cause of Michal’s hatred. Her hatred had grown over the years. Her sarcastic words in verse 20 of this chapter came from a lifetime of pain and hurt. She was separated from her father and her brother and now they were both dead. Instead of looking to God for support, she became bitter. It is recorded that Michal died childless. In the context of the Old Testament, this was the final blow. Her life, once full of promise, ended in tragedy and bitterness.

Anger and bitterness are also the hallmarks of today’s New Testament reading. Herodias, the wife of Herod, had divorced her first husband in order to marry Herod. Similarly, Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias. The complication in all of this was that Herodias’ first husband, Philip, was Herod’s half-brother. John the Baptist had declared this marriage was not a lawful marriage since one man was prohibited from marrying his brother’s wife. (6)

Now we can only imagine how Herodias must have felt, to have the nature of marriage criticized in public by some “wild man” from Galilee. It is noted that Herod feared John because he was a righteous man. So Herod probably understood that there was some truth to what he was saying. But Herodias only grew angry at what John was saying and began looking for a way to get rid of this irritant in her life.

That opportunity came when their daughter danced before Herod. Because of the quality of her dancing, he agreed to give her anything she wanted. Normally, this would have been property or money but Herodias took this opportunity to have John the Baptist beheaded. The anger of one led to the death of another.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be anger which yields actions that result in death. Thomas Beckett was royal chancellor to King Henry II. In 1162, following the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appointed him to be the new archbishop. Henry must have thought that, with their friendship, he could more easily control the church and get the church to more easily support the crown’s policy. But Beckett did not go along with this plan. The man who was a layperson one day, an ordained priest the next, and the most powerful clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the third day took his job very seriously.

Beckett would not allow the king and crown to engulf the church. Henry’s plan to gain authority that properly belonged to the church failed because Beckett would not allow such an uncontrolled usurpation of power.

Those who knew Beckett before his appointment found it amazing that he, Beckett, would come even close to being a man of God. But he grew into the job and the position. He understood what he had been called by God to do and refused to do what Henry wished that he would do. In exasperation, Henry made a passing remark that he wished someone would dispose of this headache. Four young knights, William de Tracy, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret, all who hoped to rise in favor with Henry, rode off to Canterbury and assassinated Beckett on the high altar of the cathedral. The four knights were disgraced and Henry found himself seeking repentance for his thoughts and actions/ (7)

But I do not need to read from the Bible or the history of society for you to know that anger has a way of leading to desolation and destruction. Which one of us did not shake their heads in amazement when we heard and read of that doctor in Manhattan who attempted to commit suicide by blowing up his 125-old year Manhattan townhouse so that he wouldn’t have to sell it and give the proceeds to his ex-wife in a divorce judgment. What was most interesting for me was that divorce lawyers in New York admitted that anger was the key point in obtaining a reasonable settlement in most cases.

And which of us does not shake our head in amazement when we read of a “drive-by killing” where an innocent person, young or old, is killed because they were in the path of a bullet intended for someone else.

Even more disturbing in this day and age is that anger and violence are becoming more and more commonplace. The report in the news last Friday (8) tells us that violent crime is on the rise. Violence has become an almost daily occurrence in our lives and it seems as if we can do little to prevent it.

We are a society whose first response, it seems, to any injustice is “an eye for an eye”. We seek Biblical support for revenge by using what actually called for punishment. The passage from Exodus is not a call for retaliation but rather what punishment is to be given. It is why Jesus started the passage in Matthew 5 with “we were once told.” It was a pointed remark by Jesus to those before him that what they had been taught was a corruption of the original meaning.

And then Jesus goes one step further. Not only does he correct the understanding about the law, he gives a new meaning of what our actions are to be.

As you know, we once were told, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I tell you: Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” (9)

Jesus does more than simply deny the spiritual validity of an eye for an eye; he removes the right to engage in violent self-defense when an “evildoer” violates your humanity. Because someone wrongs you, you do not have the right to wrong your assailant. You may have the power to get even, but God does not give you the right to do so. Nor do you have the right to imitate the evil that led to the assault upon you. Again, you may have the power, but Jesus reminds of what Amos said in calling us away from the imitation of evil: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (10) The core precept here is not about passivity or flight. It is about fighting back with different weapons. It is about resisting evil without showing enmity. (11) Jesus points out that what we had learned was not what God had intended and what is really meant by love.

Two weeks ago, I posted “Study War No More” on my blog.   (This sermon was also posted there this morning.) Of all the thoughts that I have posted in the past year or so, this one generated the greatest number of comments. Among the comments was the following:

Richard said…

I agree totally with you. But sometimes, when I defend this position I’m asked by people how do I propose we respond to attacks on us, genocide, holocaust, and other atrocities. Do we maintain peace with these countries which are killing us and others? I’d be interested in your reply, for my own personal understanding. Thanks. (12)

We are faced with a dilemma when it comes to fighting anger, violence, and hatred. One’s concept of “rights” easily conflicts with one’s concept or feeling of moral duty. If I am wronged, it is my “right” to do wrong against him who has wronged me. If I am wronged, it is my moral duty to behave not as instinctive reaction would dictate, but only as reason and good sense show — for two wrongs do not make a right, and fire added to fire will surely burn the house down. (13)

We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (14)

It is true that God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and good alike and sends rain that falls on the just and unjust alike. It is also true that God created a universe that still has many mysteries that lie beyond our comprehension and that makes room for every kind of life to flourish, permeated by grace. Because God’s grace has no limits, we who are followers of Jesus must love our enemies, for that enemy is the recipient of God’s grace — of God’s rain — just as we are. And that, as the old proverb goes, is the rub.

We are quite willing to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior so should we not also proclaim the spirit, the mind, the heart and the soul of Jesus as the content of how to live in today’s society? It is probably the hardest thing for us to do because what Jesus preached two thousand years ago is so hard for us to accept today. Our societal values often prevent us from following the healer, the prophet, the teacher and the resurrecter of human lives that Jesus was. It is time that we make the visible practice that Jesus taught, thought, and lived the practice of Christianity today. Instead of “loving our neighbors and hating our enemies”, shouldn’t we be doing what Jesus commanded us to do, “love our enemies as well.” (15)

In Matthew 5: 40 we read,

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your shirt as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (16)

What Jesus teaches us is that what we call conventional love is not enough. Such mundane, conventional loving is inadequate. And the love that we are to show our enemies is not really about our enemies; it is about God and about you as you begin to become that prism for the light and love of Jesus.

It is about becoming a child of God. The potential of the life within you is more than you can know. When Jesus says to love your enemies you will become that child of god. Becoming a child of God only happens through the enlargement of our hearts by God’s grace. This is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians; we have an inheritance that can only be ours because we are the children of God. The practical consequence of this is that while we will continue to view the enemy as an enemy — remaining clear-sighted in that respect — we will also come to view that enemy as one of God’s children and thereby deserving of our respect.

In 1965, there was a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was this march, marked by violence, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By that time, many people had died in the struggle for civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the marchers that day on the value of truth:

I can’t promise you that it (truth) 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 a bit — but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”

I am not saying that we should plan on dying for the cause of non-violence or because we are children of God. Death is a dark, fearful foe. But because of Christ, we can cope; we need not shiver in chilled terror. God has promised that He will be there for us.

What we are asked to do is challenging, to say the least. In the face of those who would rather see us dead, loving our enemies allows us, through God’s grace, to break the cycle and to see and feel differently – to see and feel as God sees and feels. Loving our enemies stretches our imaginations so that the incredible and wonderful diversity of the human family becomes for us a thing of beauty and joy. Jesus teaches that in our process of becoming children of God, loving our enemies enables us to become as generous as God is generous: that is, generous without limits. (17)

And so we must start today. This is the time where we must start breaking the cycle that leads to anger, hatred, and violence. This is the time when we must say that anger, hatred, and violence are not the answers. We know that it will take time for this to happen but if we do not start today, it will not get done.

As we sing our closing hymn today, let us remember the story of John Newton, the author of those words. John Newton was a slave ship captain and owner; he was reputedly one of the meanest men ever. Perhaps his anger and disposition came from the work that brought him his wealth and power. But one day, in the middle of a run from Africa to America with his cargo of slaves, he ran into God. Now, he did not, as the popular tale goes, turn his ship around and take the people in the hold of his ship back to Africa. But he did begin to soften his attitude and he did begin to treat the people he carried better than other captains.

Ultimately, he got to the point where he could no longer continue this horrible business and he retired to England where he began writing hymns. When we sing of that wretch that was saved by the Grace of God, we are singing the autobiography of John Newton. And we are singing of the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives; it may not be immediately as it was for Paul on the road to Damascus. But it will change lives and it is time that we begin bringing the Holy Spirit into the world to change lives and minds.

Some who have read or heard what I have said and written here will tell me that it is a nice idea and it would work in a perfect world but we do not live in a perfect world. We still live in a world where people use evil for their own purposes. The continuing civil war in Iraq and the escalating war in Israel are proof of that.

But one cannot compromise principles. We are constantly bombarded everyday with aspects of materialism on television, in shopping malls. We are constantly placed in situations that call for us to compromise but, knowing that God is there, we can resolutely declare that we will not serve such gods and we will not worship at their altars, no matter what the cost.

On Easter Sunday, 1965, a group of civil rights marchers attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. They knew that they would be met by a contingent of Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officials, all dedicated to the premise that the marchers would not complete the march. And when the marchers came to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, they met that contingent.

Now, the marchers could have turned back but their efforts to seek justice and equality in a land that said that all men were entitled to justice equality would have ended. And to move forward was to invite confrontation; so they stopped and knelt in prayer. It was the law enforcement officials who came forward and initiated the brutality that ensued on that Easter Sunday.

Similarly, in 1930 Gandhi led a group of protestors to the Indian Ocean to pick up salt. The manufacturing, possession and trading of salt by native Indians were illegal activities, even when the salt was found by the ocean in naturally occurring deposits. The Salt Marchers were committed to non-violence and, just as some thirty-five years later in Selma, Alabama, the law enforcement officials began beating the marchers. It was said that nothing much was accomplished that day in 1930 but the world began to see that there were ways to achieve goals without implementing violence. (18)

When Allan Boesak was in jail in 1985, imprisoned for battling apartheid in South Africa, he thought back to the time he saw black teenagers dancing around a police car just after one of his church members had been arrested. They were singing “It is broken, the power of Satan is broken! We have disappointed Satan, his power is broken. Alleluia!” The police were confused and at the sound of this freedom song released their prisoner. (19)

And lest we forget, Jesus began his ministry and the concept of non-violence during the time when the Roman Empire was at its peak. The Romans had achieved their domination of the world through a very simple response to opposition, brutality. Those that opposed the Roman government with violence were treated with the cruelest form of brutality, crucifixion. We know that there were Jewish authorities that wanted no part of the Roman oppression and made deals with them in order to co-exist and maintain their own power. The tragedy of the show trial on Maundy Thursday and the execution by crucifixion on Good Friday tells us the outcome of such appeasement.

But we also need to remember that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane when the authorities came to arrest Jesus. One of the disciples (said by John the Gospel writer to be Peter) took his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But Jesus rebuked the disciples, saying “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword” and healed the wounded servant. (20)

If Jesus is going to reject violence, what are we to do? The one struggle that I had writing this sermon was that I don’t have all the answers. In part, this is because the questions that I seek answers for are my own questions and you have your own questions. But I know that the source for the answers is the same for all of us.

When John Wesley first came to America, the ship he was on was rocked by a terrible storm, a storm much like the one that caused John Newton to change the direction of his life. But Wesley was not ready to change his life; in fact, he questioned even more his calling to do the work of God as he watched a band of Moravians pray. There were people who found solace in God but John Wesley was not one of them. It was not until the failure of his American mission work and his return to England that Wesley was able to feel the touch of God on his heart. And when John Wesley trusted God that night in the chapel on Aldersgate street, his life and the work of the Methodist Church changed.

Perhaps you have been hearing God’s call to you; today is that time to answer the call. Perhaps you have answered God’s call and you are seeking ways to do what He has asked you to do. Today is that time to ask for the Holy Spirit to warm your heart and show you the path to walk.


(1) 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19

(2) Mark 6: 14 – 29

(3) Ecclesiastes 3: 1

(4) Ecclesiastes 3: 4

(5) 2 Samuel 6: 16

(6) Leviticus 20: 21

(7) See http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm; also Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.

(8) NBC News, 14 July 2006

(9) Matthew 5: 38 – 39

(10) Amos 5: 14 – 15

(11) Adapted from “Higher Ground: The Nonviolence Imperative” by James M. Lawson, Jr. in Getting on Message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)

(12) see the comments for “Study War No More” 5:17 PM, July 02, 2006

(13) Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 25

(14) Zimmerman, page 37

(15) Matthew 5: 43 – 44

(16) Matthew 5: 40

(17) Continued from Lawson

(19) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell

(20) Luke 22:50; see also Matthew 26: 51, Mark 14: 47 and John 18: 10 (though John does not mention the healing).