“Preparing the Soil”


This will be the back page for the 30 July 2017 (8th Sunday after Pentecost, year A) bulletin of Fishkill United Methodist Church.


I suppose it is because of the work Ann and I did with a church garden a few years ago but I see the parable of the sower more in terms of the ground on which the seeds fell than on the seeds that landed on the ground.

Only the seeds that feel on the good soil grew.  But what do we do about the rocky ground and the ground with the weeds.  Do we just forget about those seeds and focus only on the good seeds?

In the sense of the work of the church, do we focus on the ones that grow under the optimal conditions (which probably don’t exist anyway) or do we go out and improve the soil by removing the weeds and clearing out the stones.

One of the things the John Wesley understood was that people would not be receptive to the Gospel message if they were sick, hungry, or struggling with their finances.  The first schools, first health clinics, and the first credit union were efforts by Wesley and the Methodists to remove that which took away the ability to hear the Gospel message.

That challenge still exists today.  What is the church, or perhaps what are the people of the church doing to make the ground fertile so that people will be able to hear and live the Gospel?

 

But I Don’t Know How


A Meditation for 10 July 2016, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The meditation is based on Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 37.

We woke up this past Friday morning to another shooting, another act of senseless violence. Was this shooting just the act of a senseless madman or a response, rightly or wrongly, to an environment that sees violence as the only response to violence? Or was it both?

Are we a society that sees itself as one group with many parts or are we so diverse, divisive, and separated that we can never see ourselves as one group?

As I have stated in the past, I grew up in the South, perhaps at the worst possible time to be growing up in the South. Parts of the South were still segregated and the parts that were being integrated were doing so slowly and somewhat reluctantly. And I know that many of those who grew up during that time, some of them my classmates, probably haven’t accepted those changes.

And today, with the reluctance of many, we haven’t accepted the idea that the statement “all men are created equal” applies to all, men and women, people of all colors, people of all economic status, and independent of gender or gender identity.

For some, the idea that some person, whom your grandparents may have considered inferior (or worse), is your equal is still a hard pill to swallow. We still somehow want to think that we are better than anyone else and we rejoice when some politicians tell us that. We rebel when others want to claim the equality that we have taken for granted.

And the Christian church, once the hope of the oppressed and forgotten, once the source of moral strength and whose members stood up against injustice and with those cast aside by society, was among the first to build a wall and keep people out. The sanctuary in too many churches across this country have become a place that keeps society out and allows its members to hide; it is no longer a place that welcomes the outcast and the forgotten; it is slowly becoming a place that says we don’t care who you are, we don’t want you here.

But the good news is that there are those who see the inequality and the injustice and work to end the oppression. There are those who are like Amos, who would rather just do the normal jobs. But God is calling them to take on the task, of speaking out against injustice and oppression, of saying that hatred and violence will never work.

Amos also pointed out that those whose only interest was in their own well-being and maintenance of the status quo would lose in the end.

Jesus was asked by someone who probably wanted an excuse to ignore the problems of society who was his neighbor. But Jesus wouldn’t give him that opportunity but pointed out that everyone was everyone’s neighbor and that you could not ignore anyone just because they didn’t fit some notion of correctness.

Paul reminds us, as he reminded the Galatians, that the Gospel still remains true and that grows stronger every day. But it still remains for each one of us to continue the work that began two thousand years ago in the back roads of the Galilee.

We may not know how to rid this world of oppression and hatred; we may be afraid to even try.

But we do know how to bring peace and justice to this world because we know the love of Christ and we know what Christ did for each one of us.

Because God loved us enough to send His son to die on the Cross for our sins and to bring us into freedom, we know what to do. And when we take that love into the world, things will begin to change.

“Finding A Sanctuary”


A Mediation for 19 July 2015, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) based on 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56.

This is an incomplete mediation because I wasn’t sure how to end it. It sometimes seems to me that we seek sanctuary only for ourselves but we end up making it a fortress. We need to find ways of making the world a sanctuary and not a war zone.

There is an episode in MASH where a young soldier wants to get out of the Army and he seeks Father Mulcahy’s assistance. In this episode, Father Mulcahy invokes the role of the church as a sanctuary from war; but the problem is that Father Mulcahy’s church also happens to be the camp’s mess tent and there is a problem resolving the difference in those two roles. At the end of this episode, the young soldier grabs a gun and this causes Father Mulcahy to get very angry. As he points out, you cannot use a gun in a place in which you have sought sanctuary.

What is the role of the church and those who call it home in today’s society? Is a church a place of sanctuary from which one can seek protection for all that is wrong with the world? Does that mean that what goes on inside the walls of a church should insulate its members and protect them from whatever is going on outside the walls?

Or should a church be a sanctuary from which all people, not just the members, can find solace and peace, protection from those who would do them harm?

I think it is quite easy to build walls around us that block off the world and prevent us from seeing what is happening and call that a sanctuary. But when you build such walls, it becomes very difficult to make it so you cannot get it. In trying to keep the world from getting into your life, you make it very hard for you to get back into the world.

But there has to be a place where people can seek solace and peace, to find protection from those who would seek to do harm. In another MASH episode, Father Mulcahy notes that warring armies always left a particular monastery alone, recognizing that it was a sanctuary and place of peace.

So what is a sanctuary? Is it a place where one can feel safe and protected from the outside world? Or is it a place where the outside world can feel safe and protected? If the answer is the first one, then what happens to the world? And how does one accomplish anything if you are inside your sanctuary?

But we can’t make the world a sanctuary? Or can we? I was reminded the other day that hospitality in the Old Testament was a matter of making all people, strangers and friends alike, welcome in your home? The distance between places and the lack of things that we take for granted today made almost a requirement that you welcome the stranger into your home.

“Who Will Be The One?”


I am presenting the message at the combined services of the South Highlands UMC and Cold Springs UMC at 10 am Sunday, July 14th, at the Cold Spring UMC. Come and join in the worship if you happen to be in the area tomorrow. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, are Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 31. I will be reading the Gospel reading for Dr. Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, with his added commentary.

I will be at the Modena Memorial UMC next Sunday. Service starts at 10. The Scriptures for next Sunday are Amos 8: 1 – 12, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, and Luke 10: 38 – 42. The title of my message is “I Am Not A Practicing Christian!”

*GOSPEL LESSON:

Luke 10: 25 – 37 (as translated by Dr. Clarence Jordan in The Cotton Patch Gospels) with commentary

One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested him with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?

Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”

The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your sould and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.”
But the Sunday school teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But . . . er . . . but . . . just who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany (GA) and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.

Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down the same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.

Commentary by Dr. Jordan

Obviously his homiletical mind probably made the following outline:

  1. I do not know the man.
  2. I do not wish to get involved in any court proceedings.
  3. I don’t want to get blood on my new upholstering.
  4. The man’s lack of proper clothing would embarrass me upon my arrival in town.
  5. And finally, brethren, a minister must never be late for worship services.

Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.

Commentary by Dr. Jordan

What his thoughts were we’ll never know but as he whizzed past, he may been whistling, “Brighten the corner, where you are.”

Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat.

Commentary by Dr. Jordan

All the while his thoughts may have been along tis line: “Somebody’s robbed you; yeah, I know about that, I been robbed too. And done beat you up bad; I know, I been beat up, too. And everybody just go right on by and leave you laying ere hurting. Yeah, I know. They pass me by, too.

He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, ‘You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.’

Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three — the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man — would you consider to have been your neighbor?

The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the — I mean . . . er, well, er . . . the one who treated me kindly.”

Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”

SERMON: “ Who Will Be The One?” – Dr. Tony Mitchell

After I had completed the major part of this message I thought that maybe a better title might be “Who Are Your Heroes?” But that actually doesn’t work because we tend to overplay the idea of heroes in today’s society and I am more interesting in knowing who is going to do the work that many people shun. In terms of the big picture though, perhaps those who do the work, be in terms of our secular world or for Christ, that others shun are our heroes.

In 2005 I needed to find a way to continue my writing on a regular basis. That’s when I discovered blogging. Blogging is a verb derived from web log, which can be consider a recording of observations or thoughts that one puts on the world wide web. When I started the blog, I thought only in terms of keeping to a regular schedule of studying the Scriptures and writing something related to those readings.(see http://locustsandhoney.blogspot.com/2005/12/methodist-blogger-profile-tony.html). Interestingly enough, one of the first pieces that I posted (“Isn’t This The 21st Century?”) was a combination of faith and science, the two areas that tend to be the markers of my own life.

I was aksed in an on-line interview conducted shortly after I began blogging “who are my spiritual heroes?” I listed Peter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dr. Meredith Eller, and Clarence Jordan and gave a brief explanation of why I chose those four individuals. The reasons, though, had to do more with the secular world than the spiritual world. But as you will hear this morning, sometimes there is not much difference in those two worlds and we can often find the strength we need to deal with the secular world through our spiritual foundations.

The choice of Peter as a spiritual hero probably had to do more with what we have in common from reading about him. I think that if I were to prepare this list today and keep one of the twelve disciples on it, I would probably pick Nathaniel Bartholomew. It isn’t that Peter has dropped off the list but I find perhaps more in common with Nathaniel at this time of my life.

Nathaniel Bartholomew was said to be the scholar of the group. Tradition has it that he went to Georgia with Thomas on his mission trip after Pentecost. While the Georgia that Nathaniel and Thomas traveled to is not the Georgia in my own life, it offers a connection, both in terms of spiritual heroes and in terms of Methodism, that is so much a part of my life today.

I chose the other individuals because their lives gave something for me to use in my own life. And again, those contributions were contributions in the daily secular world, not the spiritual world. But on reflection, those contributions showed me how the spiritual world, the world of faith, plays such an important part in our daily life.

In 2005, I saw spiritual heroes in terms of my academic life and the role religion and faith played in my life. That is not to say that there were others who played an important part in my life. During the spring of 1969, I struggled with my own faith and it’s role in my life. This is the one question that we all have to deal with at one time or another in our lives and just as we need spiritual heroes to show us how to live in an increasingly secular world, we also need those who can show us the direction that we must take.

For me, that individual was my pastor at 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Marvin Fortell. His role was more personal and what he said and did had a lot to do with the direction my life would take that spring. But the congregation at 1st UMC did not like his involvement with either the anti-war or civil rights movement and, quite honestly, forced him to leave the pastorate at 1st for another United Methodist church.

And while I struggled to find where my faith was leading me, there were also the events of the mid 1960s, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, defining how I would live my life as well.

As a chemistry major in college, I was required to take a sequence of history courses. I ended up taking 2 – 1/3 courses with Dr. Eller and I came to admire him as a professor.

When some of my fellow students at Truman (when it was still known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College) and I began organizing an on-campus anti-war organization, he agreed to be our advisor. Now this was a brave move on his part. This was 1969 and Truman was and is deep within the very conservative heartland of Missouri and America. The risks that we students took in stepping forth in our opposition to the Viet Nam war were perhaps minor when compared to the risks that Dr. Eller was taking, both professionally and personally.

Dr. Eller would later show me a possible path that I might walk at a time when there was some uncertainty in the direction of my life. It was my understanding that while he was a history professor at Truman State University, he was also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. During one graduation ceremony I kidded him about his doctoral robes being a little less shiny than the other members of the faculty. That was because they were his preaching robes and he used them every week.

Perhaps Dr. Eller’s background of history and religion was a more natural combination than my own background of chemistry and religion but it did show that one’s life on Sunday was not necessarily separated from one’s life on Monday.

My own involvement with the anti-war movement on campus would introduce me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I met him as a leading player in the underground anti-Nazi/anti-war movement in Germany before and during World War II. Later on, I would discover his writings on the nature of Christianity and our lives. Bonhoeffer’s writing focused on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and what we, as Christians, expect and what is expected from us as Christians. He was opposed to the rise of Hitler and Nazism and their suppression of civil rights from the very onset. But what may have disturbed him more than anything else, and what gave rise to his thoughts on Christianity and its cost, was the quiet acceptance of the persecution of people and the oppression of civil rights by the churches of Germany. It is interesting to note how eerily similar what transpired in Germany in the 1930s is taking place in so many places today.

I hope that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, thoughts, and action still influence what I say about Christianity and how I live a life in Christ.

I came to know Dr. Clarence Jordan sometime in the early 1990s when I first heard a reading from The Cotton Patch Gospels. As Southern boy, to hear the word of God written in terms of the Georgia countryside gave new meaning and life to those words. And as you heard this morning, the viability and vitality of the Gospel has the same meaning and is perhaps better understood when written and spoken in one’s own languages. And now you understand why I perhaps can connect to Nathaniel Bartholomew and his Georgian connection.

As one who grew up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and experienced, though not at the level of some, the discrimination so prevalent at that time, I could understand why Dr. Jordan would choose to speak out against those, especially in the church, who would preach discrimination and hatred in the name of Christ.

Each person that I have listed as a hero probably never intended on being one. No one sets out to be a hero and those who try to do so are more often likely to be failures rather than successes.

Each was called by God to complete a particular task, though perhaps not the task they perhaps had in mind. Throughout our history, there have been those called by God to change the direction of their lives and go to where God called them, even if they did not want to go that way.

We hear Moses say to God that he can’t take on the task because he cannot speak. We hear Sarai laugh when God says that she and Abram will become parents at the age of ninety.

We hear Amos saying that he wanted to be a farmer and not a prophet. But God called Amos to preach even if there were some who didn’t want the Word preached. And we read the opposition to that preaching in the early verses of the Old Testament reading.

How many of the prophets would much rather have done something else than go and preach the Word of God to an uninterested and apathetic populace?

I would think and believe that Nathaniel Bartholomew would have been very happy being the scholar and studying the scripture. And yet he took the Gospel message to Georgia where tradition says that he died a violent death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to take a faculty position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. But his concern for the Gospel and the people of Germany living under Nazi oppression took him back home to work against Hitler and the Nazis. Arrested in 1944, he would be executed in Buchenwald just a few days before U. S. troops liberated that concentration camp.

And while Dr. Jordan died peacefully while working on his translation of the Gospel of John, he endured persecution and opposition for his belief in equality. On more than one occasion the Klan (all who professed belief in the Risen Christ) attacked the Koinonia Farm that stood for equality and freedom.

I know what you are going to say, your heroes were all religious scholars, each had an understanding of the Bible and God. But Amos was not a religious scholar and his knowledge of the Scriptures was probably limited to what he learned when he was a young man.

I am not a religious scholar nor is my understanding of either the Bible or God at the level of Nathaniel Bartholomew, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence Jordan, or Meredith Eller. It would be quite easy for me to say that they are my heroes and then go about doing my own thing, whatever it may be and wherever it may lead me.

But somewhere along the line, I have heard the call from God. It was perhaps a subtle call, a quiet nudge that forced me to change direction. I know, in my own life and time, I have met Christ even if it were not in the manner of Moses and the burning bush or Paul and his encounter on the road to Damascus. It began in the spring of 1969 when I was challenged by Reverend Fortel to understand what my statement about Christ being my Savior meant and what I was to do about it.

So I turn to you all this morning and ask the question that I hope you are asking at this moment, how will we know that God is calling us? How will we know what to do when God calls us?

The story of the Good Samaritan, whether told in the traditional way or put in the patois of Southern life, reflects that moment of God’s call.

There isn’t a person who has not, at some point in time, been in the position of each individual in this story.

I would hope that none of us have ever been in the position of the victim in this story, beaten, robbed, and abandoned on the side of the road. But we have met them, perhaps more than we care to admit.

Most people, I think, chose, as did the preacher and the song leader, to just walk on and not get involved. They will proudly tell you that they are Christians but that Christianity is a personal thing, something between Christ and them. They feel that they need not share their Christianity with anyone. They forget that while it is a personal thing, it is most definitely not a private thing.

It is one thing, they believe, to be against poverty, injustice, or oppression. All you have to do is nod your head knowingly as the preacher hums along; it is a totally different thing to put your life and career on the line and work against poverty, injustice, and/or oppression. Besides, the church has no business being involved in such causes; it has more important things to think about.

I never met Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Clarence Jordan; I only know that they made a choice that went against the flow. My limited encounters with Dr. Eller and Reverend Fortel only gave me snippets of their thoughts but I know that they too made choices that went against the flow of common thought and most certainly at great professional risk.

But in all these cases and in every case where the choice of any individual was counter to God’s desires and plans, there was a power beyond themselves that decided the direction of their life. Things like this – and we are constantly reminded that they are constantly happening – should convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical way but living and personal way.

We should also see that a spiritual life does not consist of merely an individual’s betterment or an assiduous attention to one’s own soul but in a free and and unconditional response to the Spirit’s presence and call, whatever the cost may be (from The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

Each of us must take responsibility for the beliefs we hold and must personally wrestle with life’s most fundamental questions. But once we have decided to follow Jesus, we cannot help but live out our personal beliefs in public ways. The demands of the gospel refuse us the option of a purely inward spirituality. (from Jim Wallis – e-mail note on 11 July 2013).

And that leaves us with the third choice, to help that person whom we have never met, whose cry for help has fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes. The Spirit has called us to not walk by but to stop and offer assistance.

Like so many before us, this challenge is one that we have difficulty responding to. There are many reasons why we would walk on by but there needs to be only one reason why we would stop and help someone we have never met. Here the words of Paul again,

We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.

Who will be the one that stops and helps? Who will be the one who sees to it that those in need find assistance?

Let me tell you about another person, perhaps a hero in the eyes of some. This person was my mother. Now I know that mothers do the tasks of heroes and never get that sort of recognition. And I know that my mother, like everyone else, would say that she was not and never was a hero. She just answered the call that God made. After she was seventy some years old, she decided that she would be a rock star and go and sing Gospel music to the seniors at the senior centers around Memphis. So my brothers, sister, and I prepared a CD of songs that she could sing to and off she went.

But before she settled into the sedentary life of a rock-and-roll star, she ventured into fields many would say she should have never entered. Her church, Good Shepherd UMC in Bartlett, TN, decided to undertake a mission trip to St. Vincent’s Island, a small island in the Caribbean. This was perhaps one of the first VIM trips the United Methodist Church organized.

Some of the people went to work on the local school and took their hammers, saws, and other carpentry tools. Solomon Christian, a member of Good Shepherd, was also a dentist so he gathered his dentistry tools and went to take care of the dental needs of the people, adults and children. Because of the various restrictions imposed by the travel from Memphis to the islands, the amount of medicine was limited. So much of Solomon’s dental work was done without anesthesia or pain killers. And that is why my mom went on the trip. While she was a fair carpenter, there were plenty of carpenters on the trip. And she wasn’t a nurse and her medical training was confined to the typical cuts and bruises four children encounter growing up. So she wasn’t going to be much help in the medical field.

But children hurting, especially after a dentist pulls a tooth without a pain killer, need someone to hold them, hug them, and love them. So my mom went as the team’s DH, designated hugger. Every child who had dental work got an abundant supply of hugs from my mom to comfort and ease the pain.

My wife Ann started Grannie Annie’s Kitchen in November, 2010, in response to a need for a breakfast on Saturdays in the community. Since that time, we have opened the doors of Grace UMC in Newburgh on Saturday from 8 to 10 to offer the people of Newburgh a nice home cooked breakfast and a short devotional. Since February we have had, on the average, 52 people come for breakfast and 8 individuals come to help serve. The high temperatures of the past few weeks suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t be doing this but I don’t recall a mention of the weather when the multitudes were fed. It isn’t about what you do; it’s about what others receive.

Who will be the one to answer the call? History has shown that it could be just about anyone. It isn’t defined by how young or old one is or whether they are a man or woman or what skills and abilities they have or do not have. It is how one responds to the situation before them; with blind indifference or with the love of Christ in their hearts, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Who will be the one to answer God’s call? The choice is yours today. There will come a moment in your life where you will encounter Christ. You can walk on by as if nothing happened or you can stop and answer the call; it is your choice.

“Can You Imagine?


I am preaching at Zion’s Hill UMC (Wilton, CT) this morning. The scriptures for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 July 2012, are 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56. The services starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.  (This has been edited since it was first posted.)

In the e-mail that Pastor Steve received telling him that I would be the lay speaker for today, I was described as a well-seasoned lay speaker. Now, I don’t know if this referred to my cooking abilities or my predilection for Lexington, NC, style barbeque or something entirely different. I suspect, of course, that it has more to do with the fact that I have been a lay speaker for over twenty years and have said that I will go just about anywhere I am needed. At least, I wasn’t described as “half-baked”.

To be honest, I never imagined that when I heard the call from God (or rather felt the call from God) some forty-seven years ago to begin working on the God and Country award that I would be a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church or that I would have done or be doing anything similar today. Of course, forty-seven years ago there was no United Methodist Church but the Evangelical United Brethren Church (I was a member of the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, now the First United Methodist Church, of Aurora when I earned my God and Country award) and the Methodist Church, and the merger of the two denominations was just beginning to take place. But when you answer God’s call the only thing that limits what you do is a lack of imagination.

And even when I began a series of assignments in 1995 for the Parsons District of the then Kansas East District and could see the possibilities of being a pastor in the United Methodist Church I could not imagine that someday I would be the 21st century equivalent of a circuit rider traveling the same paths that Francis Asbury, Jesse Lee, and many other circuit riders rode some 250 years ago. I will admit that I have troubling imagining how long it took for them to travel on horseback from church to church, charge to charge when I can get to most of the churches in the New York/Connecticut District from my home in Beacon in an hour or so.

I cannot begin to imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Often times, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out. As noted on one web site, life on the trail in 18th century America was so rugged and exacting that half of the early church’s circuit riders died before the age of 33. But their devotion to God and America kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,

Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.

As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,

But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)

But I have experienced the joy and celebration that those early riders must have experienced when they came to a church but that was only because the church changed the starting time without telling me and I arrived thirty minutes late.

Still, when I see all the Methodist Churches throughout this district and conference I can only begin to imagine and appreciate the sense of purpose and dedication that each circuit rider had when they brought the Gospel message to the people.

It had to have been similar to the sense of purpose that Jesus had when he saw the people coming to him in the Galilean countryside. It had to have been the same sense of purpose that John Wesley had when he saw how the Church of England, his church, the church in which he had been raised, ignored and neglected the lower and working class people of England. There will be some, I know, who might not like the following statement and there will be some, I know, who will be uncomfortable but I fear that one of the problems with the Methodist Church today is that we no longer have that same sense of purpose, that same sense of hurt when we see others hurting in both body, mind, and spirit.

Through both my own upbringing and study, I have a sense of the history of the Methodist denomination and its parallels to the history of this country. One of the first thing that struck me when I began visiting churches in this district as a lay speaker were the numbers stamped or carved into the ends of the pews. Now, from my studies, I knew what those numbers meant but I never had actually experienced such a setting. I know that such numbers were a way of recording which families had rented or paid for that pew (and when someone says that you are sitting in their pew, they are not necessarily joking). I also know that if you could not afford the price of the pew, you and your family stood in the back of the church or in the balcony. It was a very subtle reminder that, in a country dedicated to the notion that all men were free and equal, some men were more free and equal than others.

In that period of time when I was beginning to discern the call God gave to me I taught at a community college in Illinois. A colleague of mine at this community college happened to belong to the Free Methodist Church. I do not recall if we ever discussed just exactly what it was about his church that made it free or why the United Methodist Church that I attended was not free. I would later discover that the Free Methodist Church began as a protest against the purchasing or rental of church pews as well as the unwillingness of the Methodist Episcopal Church to speak out against slavery.

As it happens, the particular United Methodist Church that plays such a prominent part in my life, especially at a time when I was struggling with the very nature of being a Christian, not just the call from God, has carved in stone above the side entrance to the church its original title, “First Methodist Episcopal Church, South”. Since I am a Southern boy, this should not be surprising but this particular church is in Kirksville, Missouri, and is about thirty miles south of the Iowa state line.

But when I joined 1st UMC in 1966, I was not aware of that particular part of the history of the church or the denomination. In fact, I would not discover that particular stone carving until many years later (always remember that you have to live with the words you carve in stone). Truth be told, I would rather have gone to Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church but it was a few miles further away and when you had to walk to church, such things are important. (I had the opportunity to preach at that church, now Faith UMC, a few years ago and told the congregation about my decision; a member of the congregation came up to me afterward and said, “You could have called. We would have come and gotten you.”)

Were it not for my own experiences growing up in the South, I cannot begin to imagine how a church, which began as a ministry to the least of society, could ever be divided and be so against the words that we heard Paul write to the Ephesians today. And it is equally difficult for me today to imagine that words so similar to that which divided the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1840s into the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Episcopal Church are again being spoken in this day and age. You may disagree with me but the words that I hear being spoken today about who can and cannot be a member of this denomination bear a striking resemblance to the words that divided this church in 1840 and so dominated our society in the 1960s. We are a denomination that placed reason and experience as cornerstones, along with scripture and tradition, in arriving at theological conclusions, yet we are willing to be willfully ignorant about humanity.

Were it not for the fact that I cannot even begin to imagine not being a Methodist, let alone a lay speaker, I might have quit the church a long time ago over similar issues, notably civil rights and the war in Viet Nam. When I was a sophomore at Truman State (then known as NE Missouri State College) in 1969 I saw a world in turmoil. I had grown up in a church that used the Bible to justify segregation and glorified war, where poverty, homelessness, and healthcare issues were non-issues, where one’s decision to follow Christ was literally an order to follow made by church elders and where, if you chose to dissent from their orders, you were ostracized and cast out. Perhaps it was the college environment but it was as much my parents who allowed and gave me the opportunity to think for myself and I had to wonder if I even needed to be in church.

Now, I have said it before but when I began going to college, it was an opportunity to sleep in late on a Sunday morning. But no matter how much I wanted to sleep in late, I couldn’t do it; I had to be in church on Sunday morning. And so it was that I went. And as much as I learned in my classes during the week, I also learned much in church. Not book learning per se but learning nonetheless. I learned that one could do good but that it wasn’t what would open the doors to heaven for you; it was only Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and my acceptance of Christ as my Savior that would do that. But I also learned that, having accepted Christ as my Savior, I had to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity as well.

What I remember is that forty years ago I saw a world in disarray and without hope and no means to bring hope. But through my experiences in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church some forty years ago I learned that hope did exist and I could have that hope if I followed Christ with all my heart, all my mind, and all my being. It was a lesson taught to me some forty years ago and a lesson that I have kept in my heart all these years.

I was lucky.  There were churches where I could find the answers to my questions.  I had pastors like George Eddy at 1st EUB and Marvin Fortel at 1st UMC who taught me and guided me.  Without their teaching and guidance I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more that simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist. 

Others of my generation may have had the same questions but could not find the answers.  And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, there are more people asking the same questions.  Can you imagine where they will find these answers?

The call that I received from God that day in Montgomery, Alabama, that led to my receiving my God and Country Award in 1965 continues to this day, whether it is by traveling to wherever I am needed or just staying at my own church helping run the Saturday morning breakfast ministry or Vespers in the Garden program. I don’t have to get up at 3 in the morning on Saturdays and struggle with a gym that has no air conditioning but if I don’t some people might not get a decent meal. I don’t have to deal with those individuals who suggest that it is alright to serve the hungry low or poor quality food on paper plates and have them eat with plastic utensils. But how would I feel if Christ were one of those who came to our breakfast and he didn’t get the best I had to offer.

I was lucky to have a pastors who helped me to see what the future might be, even if I could not imagine it then. I can only imagine what might happen if I did not answer the call to go somewhere and preach or if we found it necessary to shut down Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.

And so it is that I ask you, can you imagine what your life would be like if you had not accepted Christ as your Savior? And what if you haven’t done so at this time? Wouldn’t it be better to accept Christ as your Savior than to imagine the alternatives that not doing so offers? Wouldn’t it be better to let the Holy Spirit empower your life and let you do things that your imagination can only tap into? Or would you rather imagine the alternatives?

This is an important time in the life of the United Methodist Church. It is an important time for each one of us as well. Can you imagine what will come if we don’t put Christ into our lives?

You Get What You Ask For


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 July 2001.  The Scriptures are Hosea 1: 2 – 10, Colossians 2: 6 – 19, and Luke 11: 1 – 13.  I also presented the message at the Stone Church in Cragsmoor, NY.

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The title for this sermon is a two-edged statement. In some respect I see the Gospel reading in the sense of what Jesus said that day when he taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. "Ask and it shall be given."

But when you ask, be bold in asking and ask only for what is needed. Jesus used the boldness of the neighbor to see what was needed as example of the boldness one should use when asking God for something that is needed. But only ask for what is needed because we shall receive only that which is spiritually beneficial.

This parable also suggests, at least to me, that we can be the means by which other’s requests and prayers are answered. The passage in the Lord’s Prayer "do not lead us into temptation" is not meant to suggest that God leads us into sin as a test of our faith and loyalty but rather to suggest that to avoid sin, we must go where God leads us. And if that means that we must help others because they have requested help, so be it.

It is said that Eleanor Roosevelt personally supported a number of students financially. One student remembered getting a personal check for $75 monthly from her, even long after she ceased being First Lady.

It might have been a lot easier for her to refer him to some giant scholarship program and perhaps even write a nice recommendation letter. But because she was personally committed to education she supported students she felt worthy. More than twenty-five students received funds out of her personal account to meet their educational needs. She was the answer to their requests.

I have seen the reverse of this too many times to count. Whether it was in education or in private industry, I have seen people not do something because it wasn’t their job. If you say you are committed to a project then you must be willing to meet the demands of the project, not merely pass on the details to someone else.

I think that is why we have the Old Testament reading for today. The commentary on the chapter points out the Hosea quickly discovered that being a prophet was not easy task. More often than not, the Lord required His prophets to perform difficult and even humiliating object lessons as a compliment to their message. We read today that Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute and to give his children names symbolic of the problems Israel was having at that time.

Hosea named his first born son Jezreel as a reminder of the atrocities that had occurred at that city. God was to judge Israel for these sins, apparently through a military defeat at that sin. If you will remember, every time Israel went into battle without the blessing of God, they suffered a terrible and humiliating defeat. Hosea was to name his second child, a daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, which meant "Not Loved." This was a sign that God was temporarily removed his love from Israel. The third child’s name was Lo-Ammi or "Not My People." This was God’s way of telling the people of Israel that their covenant was in danger of being broken.

I can imagine that Hosea must have said to himself that he didn’t ask for this. And I don’t think there is one of us who would disagree. The same is true today. We look at all that is around us and we wonder why it occurs, why God lets such bad things happen. But that is the same as the neighbor inside the building hearing his neighbor knock and asking for bread. What shall we do?

We must also remember that God never intended the punishment inflicted on Israel in Hosea’s time to be the final judgment. Hosea’s task was to show the people of Israel that they had been unfaithful in upholding their part of the covenant relationship with God. Through Hosea God announced that He would use severe judgment to free His people from the spiritual stupor and get their attention.

And while we might think that God intended to end the covenant relationship, we always know that has never been nor will it ever be the case. God’s intent is always to restore His people. When they repent of their sins, when they come to God and ask forgiveness, then life becomes better.

God loves us as His people and He will allow nothing to ruin this relationship and He will do everything to preserve it. Paul points out that Christ’s actions were solely to show this love and to maintain the relationship between God and us.

That is why the first thing that we should always ask for, the thing that God wanted from the Israelites in Hosea’s time, was forgiveness. The Israelites were told that if they repented their sins and turned away from their former ways, the glory of the kingdom of David would be returned to them.

Paul very vividly pointed out that everything Jesus did was so that all would be forgiven. What was expected of the people then and was expected of the people today was that we do God’s work, that we were to hold to the faith that has saved us.

But we must also remember that there are times when others ask and we are in turn asked by God. Sometimes the task that we are asked to do is not one we desire but in doing it, others will come to know Christ. As you go out this week, remember that you will get what you ask for. So ask for what you need and remember that you may be the means by which others get what they ask as well.

Are We Watching The Same Game?


I am at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, are Amos 8: 1 – 12, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, and Luke 10: 38 – 42.

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This has been edited since it was first posted (among other things, I forgot what time the service started).  🙂

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I grew up as a fan of the St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball team. I can’t tell you exactly why that it is but I suppose that it has a lot to do with my roots being deep in the Midwest and especially St. Louis. Then again, I remember nights back in 1963 and 1964 when we were living in Denver, Colorado, and my father would set up his Hallicrafters radio receiver and stretch the antenna across the family room so that we could pick up KMOX radio. Back then, there were no baseball teams other than the Cardinals between the Mississippi River and the Rockies and if you could pick up KMOX, you listened to the Cardinals’ broadcast.

I would listen as Harry Caray and Jack Buck described the exploits of the team, especially and probably during the 1964 World Series against the Yankees. When we moved to the St. Louis area in 1965, I even got a chance to go to a couple of games. And it was interesting to do so, because if you listened to the game as Harry Caray described it while you were watching it, you sometimes wondered if you and he were watching the same game. Later, when we moved to Memphis and I listenedd to Jack Eaton broadcast the Memphis State Tigers basketball games on radio, I got the same feeling; that he saw an entirely different game than the one that was being played.

It isn’t that Harry Caray and Jack Eaton were bad announcers but rather that they were loyal to the teams whose games they announced. Loyalty is fine and I don’t want an announcer to be rooting against a particular team but, at the same time, I want to make decisions about the game myself.

I say this because, when I read the words of the Old Testament for today and the words of the prophets and I contrast them with the words of many today who profess to believe in the Bible, I wonder if we are reading the same words and looking at the same world.

When you read the words of the prophets, to a man they point out the fallacies of a society that favors the rich and ignores the poor. Despite what those who say that God wants everyone to be rich, provided, of course, that they send the minister the proper amount of seed money, the theme of the Old and New Testament is our relationship with people and more emphasis is given to the needs of the old, the infirmed, the helpless, the poor, and the oppressed.

In the passage from Amos for today, God spoke of those “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, "When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?" Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them — and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.”

But what I see in this world today is such a world, a world in which the poor are exploited by the rich; where those who have so much care so little for those who have nothing. I see a world in which many so-called Christians care little for their fellow man and think that any expression of help is an expression of secularism or governmental interference or some “bleeding heart liberals.”

And it is a world where if one speaks out against the system, calls for compassion and repentance, of changing the values of society, they are apt to be called a socialist or some sort of secular humanist or ever worse.

Such a person is Jim Wallis. He has been writing and speaking out against the direction this country has been headed for many years now. He was asked to present a message to a Christian-based youth gathering in Wisconsin the other day. But from the screams and the outcry from some of the ministers in Wisconsin, you would have thought the devil himself had been invited.

I read the words of Jim Wallis and they ring true for me. Perhaps it is because I understand through my own life what he is describing. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you look around the world and ask yourself, “if there truly is a God, why then is there such hatred, violence, poverty, and despair in the world.” It is a question that demands an answer but it is a question that causes many people to turn away from the church because they see the church as either supporting the status quo or hiding from the reality of the world.

If I understand history and especially the history of the church and Methodism, even John Wesley asked that question. But John Wesley also saw in the Gospel message a promise of hope and renewal. It was the same message that I came to understand when I began to seek answers to the same questions.

But certain ministers in Wisconsin would tell you that Jim Wallis’ words and his thoughts are an expression of secular humanism and the youth of Wisconsin, who he was to speak to, would be in great “spiritual peril” if he was allowed to speak. I would think, as did others, that our youth should hear these words and begin to make up their own mind. The ones in peril are those who would deny individuals the opportunity to decide for themselves.

What I found most interesting in all of this was that this organized outcry against Jim Wallis and the “threat” that he posed to the youth of the state of Wisconsin was an echo of the very thing that they said he represented.

But the threat to the youth is not in denying them the right or preventing them from hearing someone like Jim Wallis speak; it is in the attitude that says that those who are in power know the answers and they will determine what answers will be given and what the people will know. And those who present this attitude also, in my mind, say that free thought and creative thought is not acceptable.

I shall make the assumption that many of those who wanted to deny Jim Wallis the opportunity to speak also openly oppose the teaching of evolution in the science classroom and argue for the inclusion of supposedly alternative theories for the process of life on this planet.

But these arguments are not based on the scientific process and amount to nothing more than (and I wish there was an easier way to say this) mind control. The theory of evolution is treated as a threat to Christianity and can only be opposed by limiting what is said or taught in today’s public classrooms. And while those who seek acceptance of their ideas decry the attempts of others to limit the publication of their ideas, they fail to mention the number of times that they have limited those who oppose them.

Now, I will also state that those who feel that religion is a threat to society are just as wrong as their counterparts who feel evolution is a threat. It is proper and permissible to oppose something that runs counter to what you think and what you believe but opposition through oppression is wrong, no matter what is being discussed. If we do not prepare ourselves and our children to think critically and creatively, then we will quickly find ourselves incapable of having visions. And people without a vision will perish.

And it should be noted that when Jim Wallis challenged his critics to explain why he was wrong, where in the Gospel his words contradicted Jesus or the prophets, but they could not respond or would not respond.

Despite the pressure and threats of those who opposed Jim Wallis and to their credit, the organizers who invited Jim Wallis to speak at their event did not rescind the invitation and Reverend Wallis was allowed to speak.

In the end, the pressure to keep Jim Wallis out of Wisconsin failed and he presented a message of hope and reconciliation to the youth of the state. But the ministers and the churches who argued that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak pulled their support for this Christian festival. (http://blog.sojo.net/2010/07/15/controversy-in-wisconsin/)

What Jim Wallis speaks and writes about is called in today’s society “social justice.” I came to know it as the social gospel, a way to live in today’s society that mirrors the words and actions of the people of the Old and New Testaments. Now, I will admit that what I first saw in the social gospel was the act of speaking out against injustice and oppression and of doing good works in life as a way through the door to heaven. In reality, it is the path that one walks after accepting Christ. There is a big difference and it is one that many people today still do not understand.

But those who oppose this message do so for one reason and one reason alone, selfishness. Oh, they couch their opposition in many different ways but it always comes down to the fact that they are unwilling to share the rewards of life with others. They think it is perfectly alright to take as much as one can and then take some more and not leave anything for the rest of the world. We are reminded that in the Book of Ruth that the people were commanded to leave parts of the harvest so that others would be able to have sustenance.

We live in a world today where we think it is perfectly alright for CEOs to earn more money in a year than many people could even dream of earning in their lifetime. We are more fascinated by the salary negotiations of sport superstars than we are the salaries of the teachers and coaches in high school who taught the superstars how to play the game. And someone needs to explain to me why it is permissible to allow the very rich to keep their tax cuts while the unemployed lose their benefits.

There are those who oppose what has become known as social justice, saying that it takes from the productive and gives to the unproductive. But what happened in the 40s and 50s when blacks sought to earn a livelihood and were denied the opportunity solely because of the color of their skin? What happened when women sought opportunities outside the home and in the traditional classroom? In the world of chemistry and physics, how many women (such as Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, and Lisa Meitner) made discoveries that changed the world but were met with opposition because of their gender?

Justice is demanded when laws are passed to maintain a system that maintains inequalities and injustice. (My thanks to “Liz” whose comment in response to the story at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/07/christian-radio-station-jim-wallis-promotes-secularism-unholy-government-alliance/, assisted me in these thoughts.)

Is a message that speaks of justice for all and hope for all only for a select few, chosen by individuals here on earth or is it for everyone? Is a message which warns of danger if we do not treat everyone equally and fairly, if we do not give everyone an opportunity not an echo of the words of Amos and the other prophets, of Jesus and the Gospel?

Can we in this world even begin to think that these words should be denied or hidden? It has seemed to me for a long, long time that that those who do not want this message out into the world, who would seek to control what we can hear, what we can say, and what we think are the ones who would have agreed with Martha.

Martha was upset with her sister sitting in the living room listening to Jesus. From one standpoint, she had a right to be upset; considering the number of people who were probably visiting their place that day, she needed the help. But Jesus had begun his ministry by not limiting it and by going beyond the standards of the time. He ate with sinners; He broke countless religious-based medical and dietary laws; He treated everyone who sought Him with respect and courtesy. The traditional standards of society were replaced by a greater set of standards, equality in the eyes of God. If Mary wanted to be in the living room, that was her right and privilege in God’s Kingdom.

Too many people are like Martha in that they see each person they encounter as having a proper place in life. And they define what that proper place is. They see Martha’s place as in the kitchen and they want Mary to be there as well.

Now, and don’t get me wrong on this point, there are those whose ministry in this world is in the kitchen. They take the skills that enable them to prepare dinner for 20 or 30 or even 500 people and make sure that people who do not have a meal are fed. We should be encouraging them, not limiting them. But by the same token, when you say that someone’s place is only in the kitchen, then you have placed limits on them that shouldn’t exist. I have had the opportunity this week to hear and read about others who refused to let society’s restriction stop them from them from beginning ministries that reach out and touch the lives of countless people.

Social justice may not be the proper term but it speaks to the desires of each human to reach their potential. Anything done to limit that potential represents the worst that civilization has to offer.

If we see this life as a game, we have to realize that under the present rules it is a game that we are destined to lose. And some people, who understand this, see the only way to change the outcome is to control the players because they cannot control the game.

And the prophet’s words still echo throughout history; that those who control the players will suffer the greatest loss – go back and read the Old Testament reading again and tell me that Amos wasn’t speaking to the doom that faced the powerful and the greedy if they did not change their ways.

Go back and read Paul’s words to the Colossians again. Hear the words of promise and hope of renewal that come through Christ. It is not that we are watching the same game but, rather we are all participants in the game. And through Christ, the outcome of the game has changed.

I don’t want to just be watching the game nor do I want to be denied the opportunity to play in the game. In Christ, I have the chance and the opportunity to be in the game, even when others will deny me that right and that opportunity. The opportunity comes today to accept Christ as one’s personal Savior. The opportunity comes today to allow the Holy Spirit to empower your life and let you be a presence in the world.