Some thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing


This will be on the “Back Page” of July 21, 2019 ( 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C) bulletin for Fishkill UMC. Service begins at 10:15 and you are always welcome!

Earthrise, December 24, 1968 – a reminder that we are the caretakers of this world – some additional thoughts can be found at “Christian author sees climate change as a moral issue.”

Footprint on the moon, July 20, 1969 – In your journey with Christ, where will you leave your mark?

Which Way Will You Walk?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two Roads”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem With Change


I am preaching at the combined service for the Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church (US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922) and the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928).  The service is in Highland Falls at 9:30 and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.  The Scriptures for this 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 4 July 2010, are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, Galatians 6: 1 – 16, and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

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If I were to say that the church today, be it an individual church of any denomination, the United Methodist Church as a whole, or the church in general, was in trouble, I doubt very seriously that anyone would disagree with me. While some individual churches are doing well, the general state of the church in this country is not very good.

For a while earlier this summer I was reading summaries of the Annual Conferences as they appeared on the United Methodist News Service link on the Methoblog. I discovered that three Annual Conferences in this area were ceasing operation and either forming a new combined Annual Conference or merging with neighboring Annual Conferences. I gathered from my reading of the various reports that there is still a decline in the membership of the United Methodist Church though I got the impression that the decline was slowing down. That data will take a couple of years to determine; data on church membership can be found at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.6072819/k.2327/Membership.htm#decline.

But it is the view of the church outside the walls of the church that also speaks to the troubles of the church. There are those outside the church who see religion as just another superstition; they see wars fought by mankind in the name of God as evidence that God is an angry and a violent God. They hear the pronouncement of tired old men and conclude that the church today is sexist, repressive, and autocratic. They see a church seeking to control the minds of the people through ideology and ignorance. They see a church out of touch with reality.

And you know what? Many times, they are right. What was it that Paul wrote to the Galatians in today’s Epistle reading? Watch out for those who would impose a legal structure on you as a justification for what they did to Christ. See how they insist that you follow the law while they are free to do whatever they please.

When I look at the church in general, I see a church that is monolithic in structure, many times dedicated to the continuance of that structure. And it is not always a corporate mentality; it is the mindset and desire of the people in many individual churches to maintain the status quo, even in the face of impending doom. It is almost as if such churches are defiantly saying, “we have done it this way for two hundred years and we are not about to change now.” The only problem is that today, the sanctuary is barely full, there are virtually no young people in the congregation and Sunday school is often times a fond memory. There are a number of such churches in this district and, unless something is done immediately, many of these churches will be closing their doors in the next five years.

And yet there is evidence to suggest that the population of this area is increasing. I cannot speak to this side of the Hudson River and its population growth but I know that there is steady increase in population on “my side” of the river and it is in areas where there are United Methodist Churches. If there was ever a situation that mirrored the Gospel reading for today, it is now but to make the Gospel reading a reality will require change, change on the part of the denomination and change on the part of the churches in the area.

Now, I know what people will say when they hear the word “change.” If they don’t run out of the sanctuary screaming in panic, they say that they cannot change because and any number of excuses is given. I am reminded of the United Methodist version of a modern classic joke.

“How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“What! My grandmother knew Thomas Edison personally and she gave this church that light bulb and you want to change it!!”

If there is something that we fear more than fear, it is change. We have created a comfort zone in our churches today. When we come to church, we are insulated from the problems of the world and get a brief respite from them.

We have created a religion where God is our servant and is supposed to do what we ask rather than one where we are the servants doing what is expected of us because we are God’s children. We are like Naaman, who when Elisha told him to go wash seven times in the Jordan River, got angry and threw a temper tantrum and said, “I thought that he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand on the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease.”

Naaman wanted a cure that reflected his stature and power, not a cure that was based on the person. He wanted God to be his servant instead of being the servant of God.

But when we do that, when we make God our servant, we become blind to the many ways that God can be working in the world. Putting God inside the church walls and keeping Him there makes Him exclusive, available only for the so-called chosen ones. And keeping him there provides a relief for those who fear radical change.

As some of you know I grew up in the South and I saw the effects of segregation. Now, I will admit that I don’t recall what many of the pastors preached back then but I do know that I went to the same Methodist church as George Wallace did when he was governor of Alabama in 1962. In retrospect, I never did understand how it was that any minister could, in good conscience, oppose the Civil Rights movement at that time. But many, both in the North and in the South did, and they still maintain those same conservative, exclusionary, repressive attitudes today. When you read about Jesus eating with sinners and you see ministers and congregants proclaiming that sinners are not welcome in their church today, you have to begin wondering what is going on.

I will say that I was fortunate because I was given opportunities to explore my faith and come to my own conclusions about the church, the denomination, my faith and my relationship with Christ. It is an exploration that has continued on to this day. Not everyone has been given the same and in so many churches where things are “fixed”, we see the people leaving.

There was a time when I thought Mount Moriah was a street in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. And I never could quite figure out how Paul could be writing to a church in Corinth, Mississippi. And Shiloh was the place of the first bloody battle in the Civil War (surpassed later by Antietam and Chickamauga), not a place of peace or that the battle of Shiloh was named after the Methodist Church on the battlefield.

I grew up, as many of you did, with the King James Version of the Bible as the only available translation. But over the years, as I have heard many proclaim it to be the true Word of God, I have to wonder. What happened to the Aramaic and Greek translations of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? If the Word of the Lord is fixed, why then have there been arguments about what books should be placed in the Bible?

If the Bible is to be the Living Word of God, then it has to be expressed as such. To hold to a 17th century translation with its archaic language is to say that the Bible cannot change. As I mentioned when I read the Gospel reading for this morning, I have been using a translation called The Message. I believe that it is a true translation of what Luke wrote but it is expressed in words that are easier to understand. In the for what it is worth category, someone came up to me after the service where I was preaching last week and asked me about some questions about that translation. She said that she was going to get a copy because it sounded easy to read and understand. Now, as a good old Southern boy, I would use Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels when I could. But the problem with that particular translation is that you have to be familiar with the geography of Georgia.

Our problem is that we do not understand what Christianity is about. Our understanding is based on a structure that came into play some three hundred years after Paul began his mission work. We see the church as more of a corporate entity, a business, than it was some two thousand years ago.

Then Christians were quite content to gather for worship, witness, and service wherever the world would give them the opportunity to do so. The church was designed to fit the conditions of the place. Church organizational structures were very ad hoc and the people were quite willing to take whatever space the world was prepared to give them.

When Paul wrote of the church (as he did in his letter to the Colossians) as being “in every place”, he did not mean that every village had a congregation. Rather, he meant that throughout the Roman world signs of witness to Christ as the Lord of the world had been raised.

If we are to bring life back to the church, if we are to bring the church back to life in society, then we must change things. We must change the way we see the church and that will require that we change what we know about the church, about Jesus, about religion and Methodism, about the world around us and the people who share this world with us. The church cannot be separate from the world if it expects to be a part of the world.

Why did Jesus send the seventy out into the Galilean countryside? Well, in part it was to prepare the countryside for the later work that He would do. But it was, I believe, also a sign to those who followed Jesus that they were expected to to do the work as well. And it is very important that we see that Jesus did not give the authority to continue the work until after they returned and only after He warned them not to let their success go to their heads. As Clarence Jordan translated that passage from Luke, “do not get all hepped up just because the devilish guys gave into you; you should be happy that you’re enrolled in a spiritual cause.” (From the Cotton Patch Gospels translation of Luke)

The church today is expressed in terms of a theology of glory, not a theology of the Cross. We must see our ministry as being one who promotes and tries to practice the compassion, justice, and non-violence that Jesus taught and demonstrated. (From the July issue of Connections) We must free ourselves from the world’s self-assertive ways and be more open to the surprising claims of God that press upon us through our neighbors and the world outside the walls of the church.

And don’t think that it can’t be done. Hear again the words of Paul written to the Galatians, “live creatively” and

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

Don’t tell me that you can’t do it; that you can’t be creative. The fact that two churches are meeting together speaks of a desire to move beyond the routine of traditional worship. But also know that you cannot stop with one new idea. The curse of change is complacency, where one new idea quickly becomes the norm and a radical idea becomes the traditional way of doing things. Yes, that’s hard work and not all ideas are going to be good ones and not all good ideas are going to work.

But think boldly! If you don’t seek new ideas then you will quickly find yourself trapped inside perceived self-boundaries. Change is part of the journey, from where you were to where you are to where you are going. To stop seeking change is to stop the journey.

Consider this – where would we be today if fifty-six men had not gathered in Philadelphia at the end of June and the beginning of July some two hundred and thirty four years ago. Out of that meeting came a document stating that this collection of British colonies was going to try something new and radical. Those fifty-six men, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, fully understood that what they signed would either be a seminal document for the governing of people by themselves or it would be their death warrant.

Their signatures committed them to the process of independence. Without those commitments, the process would have failed.

We are called today to make a change in our lives. The problem with this change is that we are called to commit our lives to Christ and then open our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not required to do so but that is the problem. To not answer the call is to say that you wish your life to remain where it is and as it is; it is tantamount to saying that you wish your journey to end.

To answer the call is to begin a new journey with Christ, a journey of freedom and life.

Are You Working For God?


This was one of my first sermons.  I was living in Pittsburg, Kansas, and was asked by the Parsons District Superintendent, Andrew Gardner, to cover three churches (Elk Falls, Longton, and Elk City) while he found a regular pastor for the charge.

At the time I began this assignment, I was still learning what it meant to be a lay speaker.  I quickly found out that preparing a sermon every week was a little different that what I was used to.  Hopefully, over the past fifteen years, I have begun to figure that out.

I used the New Common Lectionary while preparing this series so the Scripture references are slightly different.  The Scriptures for this 6th Sunday in Pentecost, 9 July 1999 were 1 Kings 21: 1 – 3, 17 – 21; Galatians 6: 7 – 18; and Luke 10: 1 – 12, 17 – 20.

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In my prayer guide is the following passage:

And so when we had a decision to make, we would open the Gospel at random, after having said a prayer, and then we did whatever was written, without adding anything.

This manner of action gave us a boundless liberty, and nurtured simplicity of heart with some solid food.

Another important element taking shape in the community we were forming was the primacy of faith instead of structures.

We felt ourselves to be a community in search of God, not a seminary for the priesthood.

What made us one was Christ, and the imitation of him gave meaning to the manner of living of each one of us.

There was the whole expression around us of the life of a simple Christian. (from I, Francis by Carlo Carretto, page 226 of A Guide to Prayer)

I think the writer was telling us that when we work in Christ and together, what we accomplish will be successful. This is the point made in today’s scripture. When we do something, we do it for the Glory of God. And we do it as a community working together for God.

When we work without God in our lives, we must be prepared for the consequences. Ahab was given the throne of Israel by God. His actions in taking Naboth’s vineyard went beyond the boundaries of the power of the throne. He used the power of the throne without realizing that it wasn’t his throne or his power to claim and he had to face the consequences. We all know of those who have let the power of the office they held blind them to their responsibilities. The same is true for each of us. When we do not recognize from where our skills and powers come from, when we do not acknowledge from where our resources come, we too will fail.

I think of two other situations that illustrate this idea. The first was a young Baptist preacher who described the first sermons he ever preached. He went into great detail about the preparation he put into the first sermon he was going to preach and how his congregation readily accepted those words of wisdom. So well did that sermon go that he said that he thought he had all come from him. So he did not work as hard on the next sermon which was a total disaster. Then he realized that it was not he who prepared the sermons but God and that when he forgot that, the result was failure.

The second preacher was John Praetorius, the pastor of the United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota where I was a member. Throughout the year, John jots down ideas about sermons and scriptures that he wants to use and then in August, after much prayer, thought, and work, he hands out a worship book listing the scripture, sermon title, and hymns that he will use for the coming year. He might not work on the actual sermon until it is time but this approach gives him some ideas to work with during his preparation time. The amazing thing to all of this preparation is that when it comes time to actually prepare the sermon, the scripture and the ideas written down over the previous weeks fit into the situation that Grace Church was dealing with that week.

People would always comment on how the sermon really hit the point but John would always say that this is what God wanted said that day.

God is always there, working in our lives. And we must acknowledge that presence. Paul reminds the Galatians of that very point. In Galatians 6: 7, Paul writes "God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit." Paul follows this with an exhortation to work for the good of all and a warning to those who try to get you to work for Christ so that they may take all the glory.

The hardest thing in the world today is working for Christ. The essence of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was that first, one cannot work for one’s own glory but for the glory of God. Second, it was the responsibility of the community to support each other in times of trouble and need. Paul was writing to the Galatians because their community was divided about how one worked for God.

In sending out the seventy, Jesus expanded the ministry beyond what He physically could do. He noted to each one of them to take nothing but to depend on the community in which they were. If the community were not to support them, they should go on. And note that when they returned, they rejoiced in the success of their mission because it had been in the name of Jesus. But as Jesus noted, they needed to be careful and understand that their success came through Jesus and if they celebrated as if it were there success, then they would be in trouble.

Though I have no way of telling, I am sure that the words community and communion have a common root. And in our celebration of communion we are celebrating that we are in the community of Christ. We also come knowing that our place at this table is through the grace of God and gift of salvation offered by his Son, our Lord, not by anything we have done on this earth. Our hope and prayer are that what we do today and tomorrow will focus on the celebration of Christ in our lives.

Who Shall Serve?


This was the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 July 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday after Pentecost were Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 37.

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In preparing today’s sermon I read an interesting interpretation of today’s Gospel reading. This interpretation of the Good Samaritan story is told in light of today’s values, mores, and society’s view of service and compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden. In other words, the Good Samaritan is viewed as a villain rather than the hero.

Indeed, the heroes of this story as told in today’s terms are the Pharisee and the Levite because they respected the rights of the individual and held true to their own values. As the writer pointed out, if the Pharisee had even thought about helping the individual, the very act of helping would have made it impossible for the Pharisee to perform his own job since he would have been ritually unclean. In light of this, it was more important for the Pharisee not to help one individual because he would then be unable to help others. The Levite is similarly applauded because he held to the community standards as laid out by the community leader, the Pharisee.

Not only is the Good Samaritan not considered the hero, there is even the suggestion that he was the one who beat up and robbed the individual so that he could stage the rescue and bring attention and glory upon himself. ("Living the Word" by Samuel Wells, Christian Century, 29 June 2004)

We would hope that people see this interpretation as a scathing indictment on the view of society towards those less fortunate. Yes, there are those who take advantage of the situation to gain a few extra dollars from individuals. This past week, I received a phone call from an individual in Peekskill who said he needed a large sum of money to pay his rent. This individual had AIDS and was unable to find employment. Everything he said was designed to make me feel guilty should I not help him.

And when I explained that I could not provide him with what he wanted, he proceeded to call me a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud. He also made allusions to the hypocritical nature of the church that would say one thing but would not help an individual down on their luck. This attack on my soul might have worked except later that day I found out that he had called every other Methodist minister in the area and tried the same tactics.

But against this obvious scam, there are those who I encountered in my walks to and from Grand Central Station to Union Square where I used to work. These people were not interested in a large amount of money but just needed something to eat. My deal to them was I would buy them something to eat. And in just about every case, the person accepted my offer. I know of other pastors in this area who have arrangements with local restaurants when they receive similar calls. If it is a true call, the person shows up; if not, then the person is likely not to appear.

The question that we must ask ourselves each day is how we should react if this were to happen to each of us? How would we react if we encountered someone injured or in need of help? The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is that we are supposed to help those in need and not use our position in life as an excuse for not helping. Yes, in this day and age there are scams and we may or may not be the victim. God gave us the ability to think so that is what we should do, not simply blow off the individual in need just because we are cynical.

The problem is that cynicism has become the norm rather than the exception. We question anyone who seeks to help. It is no wonder then that the political process in this country turns people off. Politics today is more cynicism and being negative than it is a desire to help and foster good.

Now, I cannot offer any solutions to national politics; it is not the purpose or nature of the pulpit to do so. But, this attitude that serving is not for me, the cynicism that people do it for their own purposes and not for the good of the body extends into other areas as well.

This church community is faced with at least three crisis in the coming months. One, the financial, is pretty well documented. The solution to the problem is found in solving the other two problems. The first of the other two problems is that we have a list of forty-six individuals who, if nothing happens between now and the Church Conference, will be dropped from the membership list. They will not be dropped if they become active again (by participation, service, or financial contribution) or if the congregation votes not to drop them. Keep in mind that this latter solution will only be a temporary one because the congregation would have to vote on their status again at the next conference. It would be far better to get them active again. It should also be pointed out that we have begun a list on one-year inactive members. Copies of both lists are in the fellowship hall.

The other crisis, which getting people active again in the church will help to resolve, is to fill the vacancies on the church council. Now, at this point I have not, in my role as Chair of the Lay Leadership Committee, asked anyone to serve or to continue to serve. In part, I have not asked anyone because there really aren’t a whole lot of people to ask. Even with all the members on the two inactive lists, we still have 34 members on the active list. But of those 34, 22 do not come to church on a regular basis, maintaining their membership through financial contributions or service. In one or two cases, I do not even know who they are. This leaves us with twelve people who are active members in terms of presence and/or service. And because most of the twelve have served long and faithfully, it would be unfair to ask them to serve again (unless they want to do so).

If we were to fill all the slots on the PPRC committee, the Board of Trustees, and the Committee on Lay Leadership along with the slots on the Church Council and Finance Committee, we would need thirty two individuals. If we went with a minimum number of people for the PPRC, Trustees and Lay Leadership committees, we would still need twenty-three people. No matter how you look at, if we do not get many of the inactive back into activity and if we do not get those who live in this area active as well, we are not going to be able to provide the leadership for this church. If we cannot provide a leadership group that represents all the members of the church, then it will be very difficult to do anything else.

What is interesting is that many people have said that they would come but other things get in the way. Wasn’t this the reason why the Pharisee and the Levite did not help that unnamed person on the side of the road? Weren’t there other reasons that took precedent over helping someone?

Look again at the reading from the Old Testament. The people of Israel have gotten away from God and God has decided that enough is enough. No longer will He tolerate their indifference, their lack of service to the Lord. As you read Amos again, note that God is giving away the land of Israel; he is selling the property to someone else.

And instead of directing their anger at themselves, the Israelites attack the prophet. But Amos tells them that he is just a simple shepherd like his father; he is not a prophet so they shouldn’t get angry with him. It is God who has made the decision to give the land away. Now, I did not deliberately pick these readings for today; they were decided a long time ago and it is only because it is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost that they are read today.

Like the Israelites of old, this congregation must hear the word of God and hear it clearly. The call to service, the call to help others begins with service to the church and it begins here. We can no longer say that we will not serve because to do so is to let the prophet’s words come true. That was the one thing about the prophet’s words in the Old Testament; the people always had the chance to repent and return to God.

Now, less you think that this is only a sermon of gloom and doom, of terror that will come, keep in mind that we also have Paul’s words to consider as well. And they are words of hope for this day. There is hope for those who hold onto their faith; there is hope for those in whom people can see the presence of God.

There is one other reminder about service. We celebrate communion today as a reminder that Christ gave His life so that we could live. Perhaps, as we come to the table this day, we should stop and ponder where our lives might be if Christ had been a little more cynical about His Father’s call to minister to us.

We know that there was no cynicism in His words; we know that He gave His life so that we might live. And now He is calling us, calling us to reach out to the homeless, the oppressed, the sick, the needy. He is calling us and asking that we reach out to those not here today and to ask them to come back. He is asking, "who shall serve this day?"


Who Do You Listen To?


I am preaching at Pine Plains UMC again this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost.
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I have edited this since it was first posted.
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In the prologue to her book, “Jesus In Blue Jeans”, Laurie Beth Jones writes of a dream she once had. In this dream she was standing in a meadow when a man approached her. As the man came closer she realized that it was Jesus. But His appearance confused her, for he was wearing blue jeans. As she wrote, Jesus asked “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you are wearing blue jeans.” (Laurie Beth Jones, “Jesus in Blue Jeans”)

It is the same for us. Jesus will come to us as we are, no matter who we might be. Because, as John wrote in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus was, is and will always be, how He comes to us depends on the time and place of our encounter. For many people today, the problem is that they want to set that time and place and they want to place Jesus in the context of their own lives rather than allowing the encounter to take place.

Instead of listening, people would rather do the speaking. This leads to people hearing many different messages about how this encounter will take place. There are so many voices telling us many different thing, and often, contradictory things that we don’t know who we should listen to.

Do we listen to those who say there is no god and that all the events of mankind are independent of some supreme being? If that is the case, then how does one account for good and evil, right and wrong? Are we somehow imprinted at birth with the outcome of our life? I don’t even want to think of this possibility because it is a possibility that is open to abuse and one that, in the end, has no hope. If who we are is established long before we have a chance to be who we will be, then hope has been removed from the realm of possibility. Those who say there is no god do not offer anything that brings hope into the world.

But why should they not listen to those who say there is no god? Because they see a world without hope. They see a world in which churches and ministers preach hatred, exclusion, and persecution. They hear of the Prince of Peace but see a god of war dominating their lives. They hear preachers speak of the riches of the heavenly kingdom that are available here on earth yet they see poverty at home and abroad.

They see a church fixed in time past. Such churches view Jesus as the man who walked among the hills of Galilee, wearing robes and talking to his disciples and followers. Because Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday and the way He will be tomorrow, there is no need for change and there is no need for a vision of the future.

It is a church that offers nothing in relevance to today’s society; it is a church that longs for the good old days. It speaks of a society ruled by church law, forgetting that the society that Jesus lived in was such a society and it was a society without hope. A society must have a framework of laws but the laws themselves cannot transcend the spirit with which they were written and one has to be careful that the laws do not contradict each other.

The lawyers of the society took Jesus to task for healing a sick person on the Sabbath because it was against the law. But it was perfectly all right for one to heal a sick animal. Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of that law.

Why do people listen to people who say there is no god and there is no hope? Because the only churches they see in the world also offer no hope.

There are churches today trying desperately to break the bonds to the past. They recognize that a church tied to the past cannot move forward easily. There are times when we should celebrate our past but our celebrations must also focus on what the future has to offer.

But it is how we see the future that enables us to move forward. Many churches today offer contemporary or modern services. There is even talk of church on the Internet as a way of reaching countless souls. While I have my doubts about the adaptation of modern technology to church services, I am more concerned with the adaptation of modern marketing techniques to the presentation of the message.

No longer do preachers speak of the meaning of the Gospel as it applies to us. Rather they speak of the Gospel as we think it applies to us. And it is a message that we quite easily accept. The modern day preacher, technologically savvy, is quite welling to preach a gospel message that offers what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. In that regard, people are no different from Naaman, the focus of the Old Testament reading for today. (2 Kings 5: 1 – 14)

Naaman seeks a cure for his leprosy. He is directed to go to Israel where he will find what he seeks. But he seeks his cure from the King of Israel who, of course, cannot provide it. The king panics because he cannot provide what Naaman requests. Elisha hears of the king’s problem and offers to help. Naaman then gets angry because he feels that the simple cure that Elisha offers is beneath his stature and position in life. But Naaman’s servants point out that it is not one’s position in life that determines the outcome but one’s faith that determines the outcome.

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn the lesson that saved Naaman. Rather, we have fallen into the trap that Paul warns the Galatians about in today’s second lesson. (Galatians 6: 7 – 16) Much of the dissatisfaction with today’s churches is that many pastors offer words that they themselves do not live by. They are the preachers that Paul warns about; they are the ones who put themselves above the law while they condemn you when you break the law.

And because we want to see the church in our eyes, we have done exactly what Paul warned us about. We have reaped what we have sown. We willing hear the message of the false prophets of today because their message fits within the framework of our lives. Many people today approach church with the feeling and attitude that who they are and what they are is more important than their faith itself. We willingly allow others to proclaim that they alone speak for God and that their words are the true words.

But the only words that count and the words that we should listen to are the ones spoken by Jesus. The only words that we should speak are the words that Jesus gives us to speak. It’s just that today’s society has made it very difficult to know which words come from Jesus and which words we should speak.

So how do we understand what words are the true words? In sending out the seventy, Jesus anticipated what difficulties they would encounter. He turned the source of anxiety, the threats and trials that each would endure, as opportunities to testify. (Luke 21: 13) And when faced with the anxiety that comes when one does not know what to say, Jesus promises that He will give us the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. (Luke 21: 15) He does not promise that the words will come to you or that you will think of something but rather He himself will give you the words you need.

His instructions are simple and explicit; take no bag, no purse, and no sandals. Enter each house with the greeting of “Peace to this house” and “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” These words are performative; they do what they say; the Kingdom of God is near. These are noteworthy words in a world where each word is measured for its reaction. We are so easily tempted to select other words and tailor our message to bring people into the church that we often forget that the simplest words of truth will give the best results.

Yes, the very words that we use are often accompanied by rejection and dismissal. Jesus even told His messengers that often they will find themselves in places that will not receive the message. The message of “Peace to this house” is not always easily received and regularly takes a beating.

But that doesn’t shrink its scope or diminish the truth. It has endured war, famine, betrayal, torture, indifference and crucifixion yet it endures all of these and responds to a place in people’s hearts. (Adapted from “What to Say” by Patrick J. Willson, Christian Century, June 26, 2007)

Who shall we listen to in this day of mixed messages and false messengers? We should listen to our heart for our heart will know the truth? I am reminded that Jesus said to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. If our hearts are closed to Jesus, then we cannot seek the truth. And if we cannot seek the truth, we will never be free.

If we are set free, we are freed from the limitations and restrictions that are placed upon us by the world. The power of evangelism is restored and the Gospel again becomes a message that turns things around. We are free to speak of a Savior who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in order to bring the Good News to the outcast, the hopeless and the helpless. If we are set free, we are set free to be one of those who are sent out into the world, telling everyone through our voice, our heart, and our soul of the Good News.

So, who do we listen to? We listen to Christ speaking to us each day, calling us to be his servant, his disciple, his messenger to the world. And when we hear our names called, how will we respond?