“What Is An Ebenezer?”


This will be the back page for the 23 July 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin of Fishkill United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 32:1-3, 16-20, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 23, 31, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.


When we sing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” we sing “here I raise my Ebeneezer.”  This refers to a place called “Eben-Ezer” where Samuel built a stone monument to serve as a reminder to the people of God’s help in a time of stress and strife, of God’s faithfulness and His eternal covenant with the people of Israel.  It also represented the beginning of a new life after a period of sadness and trouble.

Stone monuments are not seen by just a few people, they are seen by everyone.  So, everyone near Eben-Ezer saw this monument and knew of God’s faithfulness and help and the opportunity to begin again and renew their lives.

But stone monuments do not stand the test of time; they tend to erode and disappear over time.  But God’s presence and promise does not; it lives through Christ and in our hearts, minds, and soul.

We come to this place today because this is our “Eben-Ezer”, our place of safety and sanctuary.  It is where we are recharged and renewed.  But this “Eben-Ezer”, just like its predecessor 2000 years ago, is also seen by all.  We have raised our Ebeneezer so that everyone can find safety and sanctuary, of being recharged and renewed.

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How Does One Find Freedom?


A Meditation for 3 July 2016, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The meditation is based on 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14; Galatians 6: 1 – 6 (7 -16); and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

It has been said that one finds the cost of freedom buried in the ground (courtesy of Crosby, Stills, and Nash).

And for part of my life, I was reminded that the freedom in which we all lived was maintained by the B-52 bombers that were parked on the ready ramp with their bomb bay doors open. As long as those bombers were there, we were at peace; if those bombers took off, it was the beginning of the final war on this planet. The purpose of those bombers was to attack targets in the Soviet Union and I suspect that those flight crews knew that once they took off they were not coming back.

But how do we find freedom? What steps must we take that will insure that we can and continue to live in freedom.

I was privy to a conversation given to Air Force families living in western Missouri during the height of the Cold War that basically stated that western Missouri (where Titan II missile sites, prime targets for Soviet missiles, were located) would be a dead and devastated wasteland within a week if there was an exchange of nuclear missiles between the US and the Soviet Union.

The doctrine that allowed freedom to be maintained during the Cold War was called the theory of mutually assured destruction or, in one of the most appropriate acronyms ever created, MAD. But at what cost was such freedom paid for?

What happens when the majority of money is spent on weapons of war and the maintenance of power? What happens to meeting the needs of individuals, both at home and abroad? Perhaps the solution to finding freedom comes when one looks at the problem differently.

Naaman was one of the most powerful men in Biblical times and he expected that his military power would be sufficient to find a cure for his leprosy. But the threat of military power and the promise of wealth were not sufficient to heal Naaman.

The message in the healing of Naaman is found in the words of his servants who pointed out that he would have willingly done something hard and heroic when all he had to do was simply bathing in the river Jordan.

Like everything else, large amounts of wealth and large amounts of power (political or military) tend to make it hard to find that it is rather easy to find freedom. What is needed is an open mind and a willingness to see other options.

And the only way that you will ever see options is if you have an open mind.

Consider what Jesus told those he sent out on that first mission. Go ahead and make the announcement about why you have come to town but don’t make a big deal about it. Give the people an option.

I am sure that there were those among the seventy who would have wanted to seek some sort of response to the refusal of some to ignore their mission.

But Jesus told them to brush the dust of the town off and continue on their mission, leaving it to history to decide the fate of those with closed minds. He did not tell them to loudly proclaim how they were all sinners and doomed to a life in Sheol, just move on. He did not tell them to call on the heavenly powers to destroy the town (as some of the disciples often wanted to do), just move on. The mission will succeed because there will be people who will listen.

Those who chose not to listen lost, for the moment, the chance at freedom that was being offered. But that is and will always be the case; when your mind is closed, your options for freedom are limited.

I think that is also what Paul wrote to the Galatians. There were those who wanted to force people to follow them because it seems far easier than actually doing the work that we have been asked to do. I find it interesting that Paul points out (at least in The Message translation) that those who would force belief don’t do as they demand others do. And while that perhaps was directed at others, there are those who proclaim Christianity loudly today who do not follow Christ today.

If we are to find freedom today, we have to understand that it will not come through military action first. There may be a need for military action but it will always have to be the last option, not the first.

If we are find freedom today, it will not be through what others tell us to do or think, for they are only interested in maintaining the status quo and their own status. They have their own agendas which don’t mean freedom for others.

To find freedom, we must seek it and we must work for it. Our freedom will come when we open our minds, first to the power of the Holy Spirit, and then to the empowerment that follows. And we will keep our freedom when we help others to find theirs.

“Remembering the Past Or Seeing The Future”


A Mediation for 12 July 2015, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) based on 2 Samuel 6:1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1:3 – 14, and Mark 6:14 – 29

If you are like me, you have to wonder why it was that Uzzah was killed almost immediately after touching the Ark of the Covenant, or as it is listed in The Message, the Chest of God. I mean, we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant and those who were carrying it should have taken all sorts of precautions to make sure that it was dropped or anything like that.

But when you go back in and look at the rest of the story, you begin to understand that the particular episode, you begin to understand that the way the Ark was transported violated practically every single rule that God had laid down when the Ark was first made.

And in the first part of this passage from the Old Testament, David appears to have forgotten every one of those rules, from who was to move the Ark to how it was to be moved. Uzzah may have thought that keeping the Ark from falling was the right thing to do but, in retrospect, letting it fall may have been the only viable option.

I cannot help but think that we have something of that mentality today. We treat certain things with some reverence but we fail to remember why it was that we do so. We give lip service, as it were, proclaiming that this item or that item have meaning in our lives but we don’t bother to know what that meaning might be or what the real meaning actually is.

And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, if you hold up the Confederate battle flag and say this is a symbol of my heritage, then you better understand what your heritage really is. It would be far better to cast your heritage aside and move forward than to simply try to figure out a way to justify living in the past.

In growing up in the South, I met those who did just that, tried to justify living in the past. I began to understand early on what that meant; later on, I would learn or begin to realize that the memories of the South that people wanted to keep in their minds was a limited one, one in which nothing bad happened and in which Yankees were to blame for all the problems. But then I began to see that the only ones who wanted to keep those memories fresh were those who wanted to hold on to power and position; they had no desire to see anyone, whatever color they might be, become equal.

And that is something I think is still holding true today. I see too many people who are like Herod, afraid of John the Baptizer and what he is saying, for it lets people know that he (Herod) is abusing his position and authority. He doesn’t want people to hear the Baptizer’s words of truth for those words damage his position and his power. For Herod, the Baptizer is an outsider (even though, of course, he was a local boy) and outsiders only bring bad news.

And there are those today who call themselves Christian but whose thoughts, words, and deeds show that they give little thought to what it is they profess. They see in the Cross a symbol of power and authority to laud over others and which somehow makes them better people. But they are not willing to see the Cross for what it really stands for, a chance to change your life because Christ died for them.

They are unwilling to put themselves in the place that Christ put Himself, a place where everything was given up so that we could be successful. As Paul told the Ephesians, there was a long-range plan for each one of us in Christ.

And while there are those who would rather remember the past, in Christ we are offered a vision of the future. It is a future that is open to all, no matter who they might be.

“It’s A Creative Thing”


These are my thoughts for the Sunday Evening “Vespers in the Garden” worship on 7 July 2013 at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY).

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.

I am using the Scripture readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (C), 7 July 2013 – 2 Kings 5 – 14; Galatians 6: (1 – 6) 7 – 16; Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

I will be at the combined services of the Cold Spring UMC/South Highlands UMC next Sunday (“Who Will Be The One?”) and at Modena Memorial UMC on July 21st(“I Am Not A Practicing Christian!”).  I will have links to the messages and church information later in the week.

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When I first read the Scriptures for this weekend, my first thoughts were on verse 1 of the New Testament reading from Galatians as it was translated in The Message, “Live creatively, friends.” Paul would later write, in verses 4 and 5, “ Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

Doing the creative best that you can is one of the most challenging things we have facing us today. First, because we are not wiling to be creative; perhaps because we are somewhat afraid to venture into new areas of thought and activity.

But being creative does not necessarily mean that one has to be on the level of, say, an Albert Einstein or a Johann Sebastian Bach. It will require that you think about things in a different way.

This day, July 7th, has a special meaning for me in that it is the birth date of my oldest daughter Melanie. I am, of course, naturally proud of all that she has done but that was because I could see, even many years ago, how she would be successful in the endeavors she choose to undertake. When she was perhaps ten years old, we had a small father/daughter discussion that based on the fact that I was her father and she was my daughter and my decision perhaps carried more weight that her thoughts on the matter. At the end of the discussion, I said to her that she, who at the age was very tall, could tell me “no” when she could look me directly in the eye.

So, after perhaps a brief pause, she jumped on the bed so that she was now at more of an eye level and told me “no”. What could I do but acknowledge her refusal. (I do not know what her mother thought of this.)

To be creative is more of seeing beyond the moment; sometimes it can mean taking an ordinary task and doing it in a slightly different manner. Holding a worship service on a Friday or Sunday evening in the gardens of Grace Church would, I hope, be one such creative thought. Having a breakfast on Saturday mornings and serving the people with silverware and plates rather than plastic and paper would be perhaps another.

Yes, being creative can be a challenge! It means that you cannot accept the traditional path but sometimes follow a different idea. As Pastor Christy Thomas pointed out in a recent post, “Further Thoughts on the Texas Abortion Decision: Reframing the Question”, you can spend all of your time looking at a problem in traditional ways, i.e., “the bottom line”; or you can reframe the question in terms of what you are really trying to accomplish.  I also saw two other posts on the Methoblog that speak to thinking in different terms that speak to creative solutions.  Unfortunately, I forgot to write them down so I could put in the links.

Naaman, an important general in what we would called the Syrian army today, contracted leprosy. Of all the diseases, illnesses, and maladies that befell the people of the Bible, leprosy was perhaps the most feared because of the way it disfigured the body. Its victims were forced into exile, driven apart from contact with society. Its toil was more than just the physical aspects; in exile, one lost everything, power, prestige, position. So we can have some idea of what is going through Naaman’s mind when he knows what he has contracted. But what is his response?

His response is one of position, power, and prestige as if those items can somehow provide the cure. And response given by the king of Israel is also stated in terms of power, prestige, and position. He says that he doesn’t have the capability of providing what Naaman wants because he doesn’t have that same power, prestige, and position.

But Elisha suggests an alternative, one of course that Naaman doesn’t immediately accept for he, Naaman, still thinks in the traditional way that my power, prestige, and position will provide the cure.

Elisha offered a creative solution that required Naaman to see things differently. As one of Naaman’s servants pointed out, said, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”

I have always gotten a sense of rejoicing when I read about the return of the seventy from that very first mission trip that was the Gospel reading for today. It was not written but you have to get the sense that when they left they didn’t think that they could take on the task that Jesus was giving them.

But as Jesus pointed out, it really wasn’t the seventy who had achieved the great things that happened but rather God working through them. That they opened their hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit enabled the work to be accomplished.

This is what Paul speaks of when he, I believe, speaks of the creative power of the Holy Spirit. If you are doing it for yourself or in the same old way, then failure is the only option. If you are doing it for others, then success will come.

Whether we are speaking of what we must do individually or collectively, we have to see that the same old ways, tried and true though they may be, no longer work. We see people looking for something, something more than can be found in the old pathways. We see people whose only thought is for themselves as if that will provide the answers.

And we hear others who say that Jesus is the answer, provided of course, that you do it their way. But when you do it their way, you are walking with them and not God. And it was only by walking with God that the seventy were able to be successful.

The creative thing only happens when you share what you have found with others and it starts with Christ. So we invite you all today to open your hearts and your minds to Christ, to let Him in so that the direction of your life, your walk changes. And in letting Christ into your life, you allow the Holy Spirit to empower you and embrace you and give you the ability to be creative.

“The Church For Others”


Here are my thoughts for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden. This should have been entitled “Continuing the Story” but I didn’t think of that until after the Vespers were over.

I have a secret to share with you this evening; I didn’t pick the Scriptures or the theme for this evening’s message or for any of the Fridays or Sundays. They came from a book that I was given when I began lay speaking over twenty years ago. The readings are based on the common lectionary and developed by some group quite a few years ago. I don’t know who the group was or why they picked the particular scriptures, especially for the weekday readings but I do know that the selections were designed so that over a three year period, one will read the entire Bible.

Now, if the readings for today (2 Samuel 7: 18 – 29, Ephesians 1: 1 – 10, and Mark 6: 7 – 13) see a little different than those read this morning, it is probably because 1) the pastor or lay speaker has their own plan in mind (which isn’t all that bad) or 2) they are using the revised common lectionary.

My pastor when I first began lay speaking was John Praetorius and he would set down early one Saturday every August and lay out a series of readings, hymns, and messages for about sixty weeks and then print them out as a booklet for the congregation. Obviously, he didn’t do all the thinking about it in one night, rather writing down his thoughts as they occurred and then putting them together in one long session. And since he was working on a 60-week cycle, he already had some of the weeks already recorded from the previous year’s session. This was the model that he inherited from his father and grandfather, both preachers and bishops in the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Now, when I began lay speaking I used the basis of this model simply because I would only be preaching a few times a year and it was an easy model to follow. It is also something of the model that we give to beginning lay speakers, pick one or two scripture readings that you are familiar with and write a message that you can use if you are called at the last minute.

When I began preaching every week, it wasn’t easy to use that model so I went to a lectionary based model, first with the common lectionary in my prayer guide and then with revised common lectionary. Following the lectionary is a good idea if because it gives you an outline for the coming weeks and it also allows you to see how other ministers might be using the same three scripture readings. When I was living in Pittsburg, Kansas, back in 1995, practically every pastor was using the same three scripture readings each week but you could easily see that each person had their own take on what the scriptures said.

The downside of the lectionary readings approach is that if you do not read the Bible during the week, you sometimes wonder what or how a particular reading fits into the scheme of things. Also, many of the traditional Bible stories that we learned in Sunday School are not in the lectionary; that is, of course, why we learned them in Sunday School. So, if you only come to a Sunday morning worship and don’t partake in some sort of Sunday School or Bible study, you are likely to miss something. (I bring this up for the most obvious reading and because someone asked me during Grannie Annie’s Kitchen yesterday if there was any sort of Bible study available; the hunger of the soul can be as great as the hunger of the body).

It is not a requirement that the minister or speaker use all three lectionary readings; we encourage beginning lay speakers to focus on one of the three and there are many ministers who will do likewise. I never received those instructions in my beginning classes so I tend to find a way to use all three readings for a Sunday morning service and two readings for the Vespers service on Sunday; it does present some interesting challenges.

I bring this all to you because it helps if you know why we read David’s prayer in Samuel for the first reading this evening. It is entirely possible to read or hear it as it is, without any knowledge about what transpired in the previous section or what is to come in the next section. It sounds as if David is celebrating the presence of God in his life and one might even think, from what he said, that God is going to give a house to David.

I can think of a number of preachers who follow the prosperity Gospel theme that would use that approach.

And while it is a celebratory prayer, it is also a prayer of caution. If we had read the previous section, we would know that the prophet Nathan has told David what God intends to do and that the house of David, David’s family, will play a very important role in the future of Israel and the world. The house that God will build for David is not some physical house but the genealogical house that bring Joseph of Nazareth and his wife Mary to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.

If we read further, we will find that David wants to build a house for God, a massive temple to house the Ark of the Covenant and replace the tent structure that the Ark is presently sitting in. But God will not allow David to build the Temple and it will be Solomon who builds the First Temple.

Thus, the beginning of the story is that God’s promise to build the house of David is the announcement of Jesus’ birth and ministry. But it does not end there; the story continues when Jesus sends out the 12 into the world.

Again, we have to understand that this is a post-Pentecostal mission but a mission within the context of Jesus’ own ministry. And it is direct contrast to the attitudes of many of the prosperity gospel preachers and those ministers who feel the Word of God is only appreciated in a $2,000 Armani suit or those who would much rather have some sort of magnificent edifice in which to worship God.

I will not argue against the need for some place where we can meet and worship God but the command of Jesus was to fulfill the mission where the people were not, have the people come to the church.

I think it is entirely possible that we could read the passage from Samuel as if we were the ones who were thanking God. If we have accepted Christ as a Savior, we have every reason to be thanking God for what He is doing for us and for our family. But we also have to know the pitfalls and dangers that will lie before us if we keep those blessings and good fortune for ourselves. We are the ones, who like the 12, have been asked, in fact told that we need to go out into the world, to send the demons packing, to bring wellness to the sick, to anoint their bodies, and heal their spirits.

It is not enough to thank God for what he has given to us if we are not willing to share it with others.

“The Church Present Is The Church Future”


This was the message that I gave at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN) for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), 25 July 1993. My scriptures for this Sunday were Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 9 and Matthew 25: 13.

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The measurement of time is an interesting thing. The development of our civilization can be marked by how we measure time. While we use watches and clocks to measure the passage of the day, people in John Wesley had to rely on bulky and unreliable clocks. People in Jesus’ time marked the passage of time through the use of hour glasses. Early man had only the movement of the sun and stars. While we have calendars to tell us what day of the month it is, early man had to rely on the changing of the seasons. It was against that backdrop that the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven;

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

But time meant more to this writer than simply passages through life.

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9 – 11)

Against a background of day-to-day life and the struggle to make a living, the writer saw that God was a part of his life and that he was a part of God’s plan for the world. He knew that without God, life held no promise, that there was no hope in the future. The same is true for us today. As we begin to look towards the year 2000 and the new millennium, we ask what the future will bring us. Will the future bring us hope and good fortune? Or will it bring us pain and misery? Will God remember or forget us in the passage of time?

It has long been noted that the coming of a new century brings with it renewed anticipation for the Second Coming of the Lord. There are some who say that the all of the disasters we have endured this summer, the floods in the Midwest, the excessive heat in the East, and the drought in the South, are all signs that God is displeased with us and His return is imminent.

We are not the first generation to say this. Every generation before us has had someone who looked at society and all of its troubles and interpreted it to mean that now is the time for the coming of the Lord. But Jesus told us that we would never know when he was coming.

“Then the Kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’” (Matthew 25: 1 – 13)

Nor will we know how he will come. In Matthew 25: 31 – 46 we read,

“But when I, the Messiah, shall come in my glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.”

“Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me.'”

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

“And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.'”

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.'”

“And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 25:31 – 46)

Jesus may come this afternoon and we might not know it. After all, even Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him at first after the resurrection. So what can we do if Jesus should ask us what we did to help Him?

There are a number of possibilities. First, we could run away. But then we would be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. In chapter 1 of the book of Jonah, we read

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.”

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Take me up and throw me into the sea; the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried to the Lord, “We beseech thee, O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1: 1 – 15)

Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when we get trapped by our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.

Second, we could ignore the problem. After all, if God is angry with this country, He has the power to simply wipe it off the map. But, if we choose to take no action, we are like the servant given the single talent. Turn to the parable of the servants and the talents, Matthew 25: 14 – 30. I want to use this parable in its literal terms, using the word talents to mean the skills and abilities we bring to the church. If you recall, the first servant was given ten talents which he used wisely. Because he did so, he returned twenty talents to his master. Likewise, the second servant, given five talents, returned ten talents to his master because he too had used them wisely. But look at what happened to the third servant in this parable, the one who choose to hide his single talent and not develop it. In Matthew 25: 24 – 30 we read

“He also who had received the one came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)

Just as this third servant lost his single talent because he failed to use it, if we do not use our talents, those skills and abilities that God has given to us, we will die. This death may not be a physical death but it will certainly be a spiritual death, leaving us without any hope for the future. A church which ignores its responsibilities to society, a church which does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.

Finally the third possibility. Instead of running away from the Gospel or ignoring it completely, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)

To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. Stephen was stoned to death because he chose to preach the Gospel and challenged people to choose a life in Christ.

John Wesley understood that challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, it’s heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

But there are rewards. Because they were kind to three strangers, Abraham and Sara, both in their ninety’s, became the parents of the future nation of Israel. Because Wesley preached the Gospel, because Wesley sought to make fundamental changes in English society, many historians feel that the violent revolution which occurred in France was avoided in England.

We do not know when Jesus will come again nor how he will do so. But how we as individuals and as a church act today determines our tomorrow. If we run away from God, we will never receive rest. We will be like Jonah, trapped and with no hope of escape. If we ignore God, we will be like the writer of Ecclesiastes crying that all our work is in vain. We will have no future.

Accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior will not solve society’s problems. But by placing Jesus in our hearts and in our souls, we gain the power by which those problems can be solved. We can become like the other two servants whose talents, whose skills and abilities multiplied when they did the work of their Master. We go beyond a simple day-to-day existence. Through our acceptance of Jesus Christ, we receive that special guarantee of the empty tomb, the promise of everlasting life as our future.

“Who Sits At Your Table?”


I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 31, 2011, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 32: 22- 31; Romans 9: 1 – 5; and Matthew 14: 13 – 21

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I spent the better part of the week trying to come up with some humorous opening that would allow me to address what I read in the Scripture readings for today.  But the troubles of the world and the country would not let that happen.  There are some, I am sure, that would like it if the sermon were light-hearted and somehow allowed us to escape what is transpiring right now but I think that this is one of those times when we have to look at what is happening and ask ourselves “where is the church; where is God in all of this discussion?”

When you look at the Old Testament reading and you know that Jacob is struggling with God, you have to wonder if that is not where we are today.  Are we not struggling with the idea of who we are as a society and what our responsibilities are?  Last week I was told that Pastor Ernie had spent two weeks talking about the feeding of the 5,000 and that I needed to think about what I was going to say.  I would hope that one thing that you learned was that more than 5,000 were fed in that first group and more than 4,000 were fed in the second group.

The one thing that we need to be aware of is that only the adult men were counted; women and children were marginalized and placed on the edges of society.  Did not the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus that one time only to be told that they should let the children come to Him?  How many times did a woman, outcast from society, seek to touch Jesus only to be pushed away by the disciples?

The one thing that annoyed the political and religious establishment more than anything else was the fact that Jesus associated Himself with the very aspects of society that they wanted no part of.  And what is the discussion in today’s society?

There are some who will not like what I am about to say for they will say that I am interjecting politics into religion.  But the root word for politics, I believe, comes from the same root as people.  And if the Bible is about nothing else, it is about people and the relationship between people.

If you read through the Bible and every time you encounter a passage that speaks about the poor, the disenfranchised, or the forgotten people and cut that passage out of the Bible, pretty soon you will have nothing left.  The Bible will fall apart.

The main theme of the Bible is the relationship between people and what we must do to ensure that each other is okay.  We have forgotten that particular point.

We have gotten so hung up on the finer points of the law that we have forgotten what the spirit of the law was meant to accomplish.  Paul speaks to the Romans of trying to heal the rift between the Jews and Christ, of being willing to give up his own salvation if it would mean that the Jews would be saved.  I am pretty sure that there are some who will take this passage to its extreme meaning but I trust that I am not one of them.

I think back to when Paul was Saul and it was his mission, his goal to prosecute and eliminate all of the early Christians.  He did so because he saw what they were doing as a violation of the law and strict obedience to the law was the standard for salvation in his day.  He remembered his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and being asked why he sought to persecute Christ.  I think (and this is only my thought) that he remembered that he was focused on the law and not the spirit when he lamented the loss of his compatriots.  If they were not so totally set on the law as the standard, perhaps they would be saved as well.

And I put that thought into the context of today.  There are so many people today who have a mindset that comes from those days in Israel some two thousand years ago.  Poverty, homelessness, illness – all are symptoms of sinful life.  Wealth and happiness are the signs of a good and righteous life.  If you were born to sinful parents, then you would lead a life of sin and despair; if your parents were rich and successful, then yours would be a life of wealth, success, and happiness as well.  And this attitude did not disappear after Christ was crucified.

It was the same attitude that drove John Wesley to seek a better way.  Wesley would begin to question the attitude of many in the established church, especially when it came to poverty and class distinction.  Both John and Charles Wesley struggled with the idea of what it took to be saved and what it meant to be saved. 

The catch is that we are all sinners, so wealth, success and happiness cannot be signs of a righteous life, no matter what some smooth talking television pastor may say. It wasn’t about who you were but who you would be.

We read the Old Testament reading for today and we marvel at the fact that the man who wrestled with Jacob had to resort to trickery to defeat Jacob.  Yet, somehow we know that this was God and God should not have to resort to trickery to win a wrestling match.  But what I think we have to realize is that there are times when we are the worthy opponent for God, because we are willing to do those tasks that He sets before us.

If we think we can beat God on our own, then I think we had better think again.  We cannot defeat God.  But if we are up to the tasks that God sets before us, then it will be a draw, just as it was for Jacob.  But we must also realize that, just like Jacob became Israel and a new nation began, we will not be the same person that we were when the struggle began.

John and Charles Wesley both struggled with the idea of what it meant to be saved.  All they did before what we call the Aldersgate moment was meaningless and it did nothing to change their lives or the lives of the people they met.  When the two brothers came back from Georgia, they returned in failure and despair.  I don’t think that many people today know that on that night when John Wesley went to the meeting at Aldersgate, his brother Charles was at home dying.  That is how devastated Charles felt because of their failure in Georgia.  And at that moment when John felt his heart strangely warmed and he gained the assurance that God did truly love him, so too did Charles begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing his life as well.  It was that empowerment that provided the spark that would enable the Methodist Revival to take hold in England and in America.

We live in a world where there are those who insist on a life of laws and regulations.  It defines their days; it allows them to define who may enter their world and who must stay out.  It is a world that says that military might is the only way to insure peace; it is a world that says security must be maintained at all cost.  In this world of laws and regulations, it is believed that people are unemployed because they want to be.  And if I have plenty of food on my table, why should I worry about those who go hungry every night?  And if I have a place to comfortably sleep each night, why should I worry about those who sleep outside or in a shelter if they are lucky?  Those who do not have homes to sleep in or food to eat are too lazy to find housing or food.  That is what it is like to live a life of laws and regulations.

The other day I stopped by my home church on an errand.  And I was asked where it was in the Bible that Jesus spoke of doing something for the least of these.  The answer is Matthew 25: 31 – 42.  The person who asked was involved in the Methodist and Friends Build, an off-shoot of Habitat for Humanity.  Someone had apparently asked why this group builds a home and one response comes from the passage from Matthew.  When the day that Jesus returns does come, He is going to want to know what you have done for him.  When you lead a life of laws and regulations, it becomes easy to marginalize the least of those in society so that you do not see them.  And then, when Jesus asks, you can only reply, “when did we see you hungry or cold, naked or ill, lonely or oppressed?”

We are struggling with God right now.  It is a struggle that causes Paul to cry out in pain and anguish that he would give up his salvation if it meant that the people who say they are God’s people would be saved.  It is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who go hungry each day because funds for food banks are being cut; it is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who have no place to stay or are sick because society doesn’t feel that housing programs or medical care are important.

And the disciples came to Jesus and asked who was going to feed the multitudes?  And he looked at them and basically said that you all are going to do it.  See what you can find and we will go from there.  At that time, the disciples still lived a life that was according to the law and regulations (though they were beginning to stretch those boundaries) and they could not see a solution other than to send the people away.  But then they saw what happened when you lived in the Spirit and how much was left after everyone, not just the men but the women and the children, was feed.

This is the struggle we have today.  The question I posed when I first began this message still holds, “Who sits at your table?” It would seem to me to be an easy choice.  If no one sits at your table, how can Christ be a part of your life?  When you allow Christ to be a part of your life, then you must be prepared to let everyone, those whom you know and those whom you do not know, to share your table, your life.  If you are not willing to do that, I don’t think that you will win in the struggle with God.  But if you let Christ into your life, then, like Jacob who became Israel, you will be a new person and many great things will come.

It is the question you must answer.