“Leave Room for Dessert”

For some time, I have been writing some thoughts that my church (Fishkill United Methodist Church) puts on the back page .  Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, 19 February 2017, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A).

Have you ever wondered why we are “the people called United Methodists?”  The “United” comes, of course, from the 1968 merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches but the “Methodist” part is a little bit older.  In 1729, Charles Wesley and some of his college friends started what they called the “Holy Club”.  John Wesley joined shortly after and became its leader.  The goal of this group was to achieve salvation through a rigorous and legalistic approach to faith.  Because of this approach, others would ridicule them by calling them “Methodists”.

Yet, until that time that we have come to call Aldersgate, the plan was a failure.  Yes, things were accomplished that helped others but there was still a feeling that success and accomplishment was lacking.  The plan was not working.

But when one creates a set of laws, one must be careful that you are not setting the conditions that imprison you.

The focus of today’s Old Testament reading is not about a legal structure for a community but on the relationship between the members of the community.  The Israelites were counseled to leave something behind when they harvested the crops so that there would be something for everyone.  It was important that the Israelites see everyone as part of their community and that they treat everyone fairly.

We leave room for dessert because we want a complete meal.  Our relationship with Christ can never be complete if we do not share it with others.

“Our New Operating System”

I am at the at the Sloatsburg United Methodist Church in Sloatsburg, New York this Sunday. Services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

Here are my thoughts for the 7th Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 23 February 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9 – 18;3: 10 – 23; and Matthew 5: 38 – 48.


The title for today’s message is an interesting one, don’t you think? It reflects some of the thoughts I had while I was reading the Scripture readings for today and seeing if I could install, or rather, have a new operating system installed on my netbook. It turned out that the installation was not as simple as I envisioned and it required skills that I had not used in quite some time.

Now, I have always been interested in computers and computing technology but, as the machines have developed and evolved, my own interests moved from computer programming towards how one can best use computers, computer technology, and information technology in one’s own daily life. I am quite happy to let others build the machines and then write and refine the programs that allow me to do and make it a little easier to accomplish.

My choice of sayings for the thoughts of the day reflect that evolution and change in computers. If I had had the space to include them, I would have added the statement made in 1943 by the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson,

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

I would have followed that statement with one made in Popular Mechanics in 1949 where, forecasting the relentless march of science, it was proclaimed that

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

I could then add the comment made by an unnamed engineer in the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM in 1968 about the microchip,

“But what … is it good for?”

Of course, it was the microchip and its subsequent development that has lead to the existence of computers in so much of our lives.

I wonder how Ken Olson, president and founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation feels about the statement he made in 1997 that

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

And finally there is that definitive statement by Bill Gates in 1981 that

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

Today, of course, we operate with computer memories in the gigabytes and have devices in our home and work that operate on chips with greater computer power than the limit proposed by Mr. Gates some thirty years ago. What I find personally interesting is that many of the memory sticks that are so common today have many times more memory capability than did the Apollo spacecrafts that went to and landed on the moon in the late 60s and early 70s.

It would be unfair to say that each of these “prophecies” was a failure. Each of these statements was a reflection of the time and the knowledge available at that time. It was a statement that this is were we are at and where we are going to be. I am sure that similar statements have been made by many in today’s society, statements that place a limit on what we can and cannot do.

The noted philosopher, Charles Handy, pointed out that we live at a time where it seems that the more we know, the more confused we get. And as we increase our technological capacity, we also seem to become more powerless.

We call for an end to wars yet we see more wars as the solution. And while we have developed some of the most sophisticated armaments in the history of the world, we can only watch impotently while parts of the world kill each other and we are entrapped in wars of our own making (italics added as my own thought).

We grow more food than we need but we somehow cannot feed the starving. We offer feeding programs but the food often given out is loaded with sugar and carbohydrates which leads to an increase in diabetes.

We can unravel the mysteries of the galaxies yet we cannot understand other humans. We know that learning takes time but we demand immediate results from education. We call for quality education but we seem to think that funding education is wasteful.

We call for an end to poverty but our solution is to allow the rich to keep their money such that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased, not decreased, over the past few years.

We demand the truth and we will listen to any prophet who can tell us what the future holds. But prophets do not foretell the future. What they do is tell the truth as they see it; they warn of dangers ahead if the present course is not changed. They point out what they think is wrong, unjust or prejudiced. They offer a way to clarify and concentrate the mind.

But they cannot tell the people what to do, despite the fact that is what many people want them to do. It was Jesus who told us that we should seek the truth and the truth will set us free but we are afraid of that truth. (from “The Age of Paradox”, Charles Handy; first referenced in “To Build A New Community”)

We say we are solving the problems but in doing so only create more problems. We create rules and laws to solve the problems but which only create barriers and walls that entrap and enslave us.

This is not to say that we cannot go beyond the limits of today’s society; it is more proper to say that innovation and creativity exist in an environment that encourages one to look beyond the boundaries, to peek around the corner and over the horizon. But you cannot do so if you are limited by rules and regulations or when others seek to impose their definitions and beliefs on you.

It has long been noted that the first thing that John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach at UCLA, did at the beginning of each basketball season was to teach his players how to put on their socks and basketball shoes. And he reminded them that their hair could only be so long.

To the players, such rules were an imposition on them, rules designed for the coach to control them. But as they learned, such rules were not to limit them but to allow them to play.

By insisting that their socks and shoes be put on in a particular manner, Coach Wooden was insuring that they would not get blisters on their feet and thus be prevented from playing. The rule about the length of a player’s hair was not a fashion statement but rather an acknowledgement that long hair would prove to be an impediment when playing.

Player after player will tell you that they did not understand Coach Wooden’s rules when they were playing but after their playing days were over, they found that rules provided the basis for the success in their lives, whether it was in basketball or elsewhere.

And for me, there was a degree of comfort in knowing that Coach Wooden found his own success in Christ.

Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner. (adapted from “A New Order Of Things”)

We can easily see the Book of Leviticus as a set of laws, rules, and regulations that tell us how to live. In fact, there are many today who seek to have that accomplished today.

But if we look carefully at the rules that are the reading for today, we find that they are more than that. From the very first statement, “Be holy as I am holy” to the ending verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” these verses show how the holiness of the Holy One is to be lived out in our daily live and how we treat and do not treat our neighbors. These verses are the biblical ground for what John Wesley would later call “social holiness.”

Wesley would also put it this way, social holiness is the way we watch over one another in love. It was a way to help early Methodists fulfill the three General Rules:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Do good
  3. Stay in love with God

The organization of the early Methodist church, the Methodist bands, class meetings and societies, was done to help the early Methodists fulfill these rules. But it was not meant to be a simple checklist of personal actions (I have done this, this and this today); rather it was meant to be a way of actively working and witnessing against evil and for good in the general society. It was, if you will, the basis for an operating system, a way to live one’s life to the fullest.

Jesus takes the call from Leviticus to love one’s neighbor further. He reminds us that in God’s Kingdom we are called to love not just our neighbors but those who harm us, oppress us, and seek to destroy us. Offer those who harm you the other cheek; give those who steal our outer garments all your clothes; offer to walk an extra mile when you are compelled to walk one. Give liberally to those who beg and want to borrow from you. Counter those who would steal with a generosity they weren’t expecting and give those lacking in love and who seek to harm you the perfection in love they sorely lack.

In those verses of Matthew, Jesus offers a way to turn the evil intentions of one’s opponents back on themselves for all to see. And in doing so, in going against what would seem to be the norm and usual response, Jesus was calling us to experience and exercise the perfection in love that was possible with the coming of God’s Kingdom.

This is our new operating system, one that takes us beyond the norms and visions of society, one that takes us into the new world of God’s Kingdom.

Just as I found that my own skills and abilities were insufficient to make the changes I wanted for the operating system of my computer, so too are my skills and abilities insufficient for making significant changes in this world that would allow God’s Kingdom to be realized. But it is not up to me, nor can it ever be up to me, to achieve that sort of outcome.

Paul writes to the Corinthians,

Don’t fool yourself. Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times. Be God’s fool—that’s the path to true wisdom. What the world calls smart, God calls stupid.

Our responses to the actions, words, thoughts, and deeds of this world cannot be the same. That is what Jesus was saying; those are the rules for living first stated in Leviticus. If God loved us, then we must show that same sort of love. The love for one’s neighbor first expressed in Leviticus is also shown by loving our enemies as well.

There are too many examples, both throughout the pages of history and in our own lives, that tell us our own vision of the future is limited. And yet there is Jesus telling us that we can reach beyond the horizon, we can see around the corner and the vision of God’s Kingdom is there if we were but to see.

Our choice today is very simple. We can continue using the same operating system we have now and get the same results that we have always gotten. Or we can open our hearts, minds, and souls to Christ and accept the new operating system that is offered. And in doing so, we know that the world will change. The choice is ours, what will it be?

“A New Set of Guidelines”

I  am preaching at the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928) this morning, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 20 February 2011.  The service starts at 11 am and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.  The Scriptures for Sunday are Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23; and Matthew 5: 38 -48.


I am beginning what I hope is a new path in my ministry. It comes amidst what some see as great changes in the ministry of the church.

Now, for some, any change in ministry, be it at the denominational level, the local level, or one’s own ministry, can be a traumatic event. Any change in one’s life, for that matter, will have consequences that may not be immediately evident. All we have to do is look at what is transpiring in the Middle East to understand what the threat of change and actual change can do to a country and to its people. There are those, of course, who will resist change. Such resistance can be, as we have also seen, violent and repressive. But it can also be done in soft and subtle ways.

But what I find interesting is the role that the church, be it an entire denomination, a single church, or individuals from a single church, can be as an agent for change. Of course, it can also be an instrument that prevents change.

Dan Dick started one of his recent blogs with a note about a conversation he had recently.

I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world.  My argument was simple:  if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills.  Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?”  I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known.  Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/)

Dr. Dick was looking at another issue but what this conversation shows is that unless we are willing to make some changes in our own lives, we will not be able to make the church viable and relevant to the needs of society.

When the church began, it met in secret in people’s homes, mostly out of fear of arrest and persecution. It was a gathering of people who opposed the status quo, both the religious status quo and the status quo of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome enforced by military might.

And the Methodist Church began in response to the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As machines began doing the work of humans and humans became part of the process, the people called Methodists stood in opposition. This was not a Luddite movement where people rebelled against machines taking away their livelihoods but rather concern that people, no matter their place in society or where they were born or what they did, still have status in society.

What I find interesting is that the establishment, be it the religious establishment or the political establishment, did not take kindly to either the new church some two thousand years ago or the Methodist revival of the 18th century. But the changes that came from that opposition still echo throughout the years. It has noted on a number of occasions that the interaction of the people called Methodists in the 18th century allowed England to escape the bloody revolution that marked the French revolution of that same time period. Can a church change the world? It would appear that it can.

And now, as we are well into what some call the third great industrial revolution (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”) we find the role of the church changing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (and I will use the translation as written in The Message), “Don’t fool yourself. Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.”

But this new revolution, or rather the adaptation of the technology of the revolution, shows us how easy it is to reach people. But you must do more than reach people. The Egyptian government tried to quell the rebellion in the country by shutting down Internet access. But once contact had been made between people and they had met, such an act was a futile gesture.

It is one thing to say that the church has a website or a Facebook page. That is not where the ministry lies. You do not meet people on a computer screen; you meet them somewhere. The failure of the Mubarak government to keep the people from gathering together is what brought about the change in Egypt, not the fact that they were using Facebook and other forms of social networking. The same is true when it comes to churches.

Will Cotton, the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this journey, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church.  Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations.  The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars.   My job description (he is currently Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas) has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit.  I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go.  I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed.  But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups.  My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal.  My two CLMs came out of those classes.  If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before.  The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that).  But the shift form church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

I think that there will be a place for the local church in this ministry. There must be a place where things can happen; there must be a place where one can, if you will, recharge one’s soul. But the local church and those who are part of it must understand that they are a part of this process.

One might say, as the title of this message implies, that we need a new set of guidelines for living. Actually, we don’t need a new set; we just have to understand the set that we are supposed to be working under.

First, we have to understand the other thing that Paul was telling the Corinthians; we are the builders of the house where people will meet. If this house that we are building is up to God’s standards, if we use cheap or inferior materials and slip-shod methods, we will quickly find out what many people already know. As Paul wrote, if the building that we build doesn’t pass inspection, then it will be torn down. We may survive but it will be only barely. And that’s not the life we would like to be living.

We have to do more than simply insist that others follow the teachings of Christ. We must also live the teachings. It is why so many people look at the church and then leave it, or as I mentioned earlier, cannot see how the church, the very organization that changed the world two thousand years ago and was instrumental in preventing a bloody revolution in England yet was able to make major changes in social policy, can even begin to think about making changing today.

But we don’t want to live by Christ’s teachings. We have no desire to have our lives be a mirror of Christ. It isn’t that we can’t live that way; it is that we don’t want to make the effort to do so.

We have forgotten that the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is not about retaliation but rather the measure of punishment. And then Jesus comes along and says that we should turn the other cheek when we are hit. In this world where we see peace enforced by military might, this is a totally unacceptable action. When we are asked to take someone an extra mile, we complain about having to even go the first mile. And we certainly aren’t going to give someone our best coat when they are suing us. We are not even crazy about Old Testament rules that tell us to leave something for the poor and the widows.

It just isn’t right that we should share our wealth with others; we earned it and we should keep it. We can still follow Jesus, even when He said otherwise. And we can forget that part about loving our enemies as we do our friends. Let’s face it, there is a part of us that finds joy when our enemies suffer and we often take great joy in spreading rumors and gossip about them.

We have succeeded in somehow transforming the Gospel into a description of the world when we were supposed to change the world into a description of the Gospel. When we view the Gospel in light of the world, we will find it difficult, if not impossible to make changes in the world. We have to see the world in light of the Gospel.

Christ did not come into this world as the revealer of an ideological system that was to be superimposed on society but as one who, in the manner in which He gave of Himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. Jesus came as one prepared to risk His truth and life within in the openness of a secular world. We have to be able to do likewise; we cannot claim that we have no established right over other views but in which we accept responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. But this also requires a certain degree of readiness on our part to recognize both the creative and destructive forces surging in history. And, while we would much rather focus on the creative forces; we also have to realize that destructive forces lie close at hand. This means that while we may readily accept the responsibility to witness, we must also be ready for the struggle against the forces that always gather in opposition to Christ (adapted from “Faith in a Secular Age” by Colin Williamson).

I have somewhere in my notes a story about Clarence Jordan and his daughter. It seems that there was a young man in school who had taken to giving Clarence Jordan’s daughter a hard time. Now, despite his aversion to violence (he sought non-violent means of opposing the Ku Klux Klan), Clarence Jordan was prepared to face this young man in a manner that was decidedly not non-violent. But his daughter said that she would take care of it in her own way; which is what she did.

When he asked her how she resolved the issue, she said that every time this young man came close to her, she simply began gushing with an over-abundance of adolescent love. Pretty soon, he was getting ribbed by his friends about his friendship and that was enough to keep him away from her. As she told her father, I simply did what Jesus would have done and loved my enemy.

For each one of us, there comes a moment when the words that we studied in Sunday School and committed to our hearts and minds through confirmation and membership class must become more than simply words. They must be the core of our lives, our new guidelines for living in this world. As Jesus puts it bluntly in the Gospel reading for today, it is time that we grow up.

His call from the very first day of His ministry was to repent and begin anew. He echoes that today when He tells us to live out our God-created identity, to live generously and graciously towards others, the way that God lives towards us.

We are called this day to a new life, to a new set of guidelines. To ignore them, to continue in our present live is to say that we desire no better future. To cast aside our present life and seek a new life in Christ is to say that we seek a better future. We have been given the guidelines for that new life; shouldn’t we seek that better future?