“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?


The Homily for July 6, 2006 – Fordham University Chapel

As I mentioned in my own message for July 13, 2008 (“There Is A Choice”), I often get the chance to listen to the Catholic Mass broadcast on WFUV, the Fordham University campus radio station.  It is an opportunity for me to continue the worship that began that morning.  I heard this one after I completed the worship service at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (“What Exactly Is Freedom?”); the priest who gave this homily, Father Charles Beirne S. J., has given me permission to post it.  It is a very powerful message on what one person can do to bring justice to this world.


A friend of mine, a Wall St. lawyer, and a graduate of Brooklyn Prep and Fordham, lived the life of any committed Christian, loving his wife and his six children, and going to work on the Jersey commuter train every day. And then the Salvadoran armed forces murdered his sister, two other nuns and a lay missionary on December 2, 1980. This tragedy transformed his life and that of his whole family from that day forward.

Unable to attend his sister’s funeral in Chalatenango, El Salvador, Bill saw his sister’s grave for the first time in slides projected on to the wall of my office at Regis High School in Manhattan. Over the past 20 years he made several trips to El Salvador, often taking some of his children with him, and he badgered officials of the U.S. State Department who did not want to investigate too closely the murder of the American churchwomen, lest the results embarrass some of their Salvadoran allies. He spoke at many events honoring his sister and the others, and he gave a moving commencement address and received an honorary degree from Fordham University in 1990.

A few years after the killing, five foot soldiers, who did the actual killing, were arrested, convicted and served over 15 years in jail, but the colonel who gave the execution order still lives in freedom with impunity. Bill and his colleagues persisted, and they eventually got a conviction in a civil case at a Florida federal court of two generals who presided over massive violation of human rights in El Salvador. One of the generals was a first cousin of the colonel who ordered the killing of the American churchwomen. Since it was a civil case the generals did not go to jail, and the victims will never see the money awarded by the court. But, after so many years, at least some justice was at last rendered in the case.

Bill Ford died last month after an almost two-year struggle against cancer, working in his office up to the end and helping so many of us in justice causes. At the funeral mass Bill’s son, who is now the Principal of the Cristo Rey High School in Harlem, praised and thanked his father for his love, his integrity, and his relentless pursuit of justice. Bill’s wife and their six children continue to work for justice in so many different ways, the greatest tribute they could render to Bill.

When I reviewed the readings for today’s liturgy my thoughts turned naturally to Bill.

The Prophet Zechariah presents to us a king, riding on a colt, a just savior, who will banish the chariots and the horses of war. He shall proclaim peace to the nations, says the reading. Bill Ford, in his quiet, professional way, turned the law on the villains, and insisted on justice which is the foundation for true peace. He reminded civil officials in Washington and in the American embassy in San Salvador about their moral obligations to find out the truth about countless violations of human rights and to achieve justice for the thousands of victims, especially the poor, but his message often fell on deaf ears.

The second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans calls our attention to the Spirit of God in our lives, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. The reading tells us that “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” God’s Spirit enlivened Bill Ford and has now given him new life.

We also find consolation in the words of the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest, for I am meek and humble of heart…For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” When one is motivated by faith and trust and love of God, as Bill Ford was, then all burdens become light. He never tired in his pursuit of justice and we should never let up in our own struggles for justice. For God’s Spirit is in us, when we are our best selves, and open to God’s abundant grace.

What Exactly Is Freedom?

I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (Mahopac, NY) this Sunday.  You are invited to come if you are in the neighborhood (Directions – View Larger Map).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67; Romans 7: 15 – 25; and Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30.


I think that the hardest sermons to write and preach are those on Sundays, such as today, which coincide with a national holiday. I say this because, very often, the national interest or reason for celebration runs counter to the teachings or interests of the church. And then again, the way people see the particular holiday may differ from the intent or reason for the holiday. This particular Sunday is no different.

We have heard or will hear politicians on both sides of the political aisle and preachers across the similar religious spectrum speak of freedom. But the freedom which is spoken of from the pulpit is supposed to be different than that spoken on the campaign trail.

Politicians speak of freedom obtained through armed force and conflict. They speak of a freedom that comes through the sacrifice of blood and youth. But they see the cost of war and conflict as a plus, not a minus. They do not see war as it truly is. On Christmas Day, 1862, General Robert E. Lee wrote his wife and said,

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. … My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.”

We should never be so stupid as to prefer war over peace; yet, that is what it seems we do or seek to do. No major politician today who seeks office ever says that the solution to the world problems comes through feeding the people, healing the people, or building them homes. They won’t because it won’t get them elected.

And while conflict is necessary at times to preserve our freedom and it is inevitable that blood will be shed in such conflicts and young men and women will die in that effort, I have to wonder if we should glorify such efforts? Must we continue to create a culture of war that says that only those who have lead young men and women on a field of battle are capable of leading us? If leadership is learned in battle, and battle is the only way to resolve conflicts, how will we ever live in peace?

The sad thing is that too many preachers today do not speak out against war and conflict but rather seek to support it. Last year, when I spoke at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (And What Will You Say?), I made the comment that I saw a parallel between what is happening today, relative to the church and politics in general, and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s.

Then, when Adolph Hitler came to power, one of his greatest supporters was the Lutheran Church in Germany. They heard his nationalistic rhetoric and overlooked his racism and bigotry. It is hard to realize that some seventy years ago people died because the church turned a blind eye to the suffering and pain of the people. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).

Many religious leaders today still speak of the inevitability of war and the need to fight to win the peace. But very little is said, in either the pulpit or in the heat of a political campaign, about removing the causes of war, or removing the causes of oppression. People seek war because they see it as the final solution. People who are hungry need food; people who are homeless need shelter; people who are sick need medicine; and people who are oppressed seek liberation. And they will listen to those leaders be they in the pulpit or in politics, who promise them everything if they will sacrifice their liberty and freedom and follow them.

Freedom is not won on a battlefield; freedom is earned when there is respect between people. Freedom is a choice made in compact with others.

This is, I believe the message of the Old Testament for today (Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67). The servant in the story is sent from Israel back to Ur to find a wife for Isaac. As you read or hear the words of the servant, you hear a certain hesitancy in his voice because he fears what will happen if he fails in this task.

You know how he feels. Sometime in your life, either as a child or at work, you have been given a task to complete. And with the task comes a feeling of dire consequences should you fail. This is how I think the servant feels. But he is given assurances that nothing will happen if he fails; in other words, he is given the freedom to finish the task.

Too often today we are told that dire consequences will come to us, individually and as a country, if we do not do something. The politics of today and any discussion of freedom today is given within the context of fear. But remove the element of fear and great things can happen.

Rebekah is also given a choice in this story. She can choose to go with the servant and become Isaac’s bride or she can choose to stay with her family in Ur. She did not have to go with the servant but she choose to do so and, in choosing that path, chose to follow God’s plan.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7: 15 – 25 ), also speaks of the freedom to choose. He understands that he is free to choose the path he wants to walk; he understands that he is free to chose to live however he chooses to live. And he understands the consequences of his choice when he chooses the wrong passage. Much has been made of this particular passage and other passages where he speaks of the things that bother him. Paul never does come out and say what it is that torments his soul. But he does say that the conflict is resolved when he views his life in terms of Christ and what Christ did for him, even when he (Paul) sought to persecute the early church.

I have heard it say that war is inevitable and that we must be prepared to go to war. I will not deny that we must defend our freedom but if we do nothing to remove the causes of conflict and distrust, then conflict will be inevitable. So why should we wait until the dogs of war are barking at our door? Why do we not do what we have been asked to do over the years.

The Great Commission states we are to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people. But that is not necessarily the best translation of that passage. It is a convenient translation because it gives us the opportunity to continue a war mentality; if you will not become a disciple, then we will make you one.

But other (and I believe better) translations tells us to have the people follow the ways that we were taught. And we were taught to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build houses for the homeless, and bring hope to the oppressed. The burden of freedom can be a heavy burden; that is why the Gospel reading for today (Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30) speaks of a yoke. We have chosen to wear a yoke that we call freedom but it is a heavy yoke and it encumbers us and enslaves us. We call it freedom but in reality it is sin.

But, in Christ, we are offered a chance to remove that yoke. In Christ, we are offered a choice of freedom, freedom over sin and death, freedom from slavery and oppression. And, as those who proclaim Christ as their Savior and Lord, we must bring that choice into the world.

Freedom is a choice, a choice to follow or not to follow. Freedom is an opportunity and we have that opportunity today.

What path are we on?

We are two nations in one. It seems that we have always been and perhaps will always be two nations. During the Revolutionary War, we were divided between the revolutionaries and the loyalists; during the Civil War, it was North and South. Now, it seems that it is the rich and the poor, the have’s and have-not’s. How long will it be before we understand that we cannot be divided by economic status, social status, or even simply differences of opinion?

It is alright to have differences of opinion but it seems that today many people do not care what others think. Either you believe what they believe or you are not allowed to believe at all.

The Old Testament tells us the story of Jacob and Esau, two brothers. On day, after a long and unsuccessful hunt, Esau comes home tired and hungry. Esau’s hunger was so great that he was willing to offer his brother Jacob anything at all so that he could get food. Jacob demanded and received Esau’s birthright, the right to the power and prestige that go with being the oldest son in the family (even thought Esau and Jacob were twins, Esau was the oldest by the matter of seconds).

Should Jacob not have offered the food to his brother without worry about compensation? Should Jacob cared more for his brother than he did his own position in life? How much like these two brothers are we? Are our own goals in life driven more by where we stand in society and life than they are by our caring for our brothers and sisters?

Jesus spoke of the sower spreading his seeds on the ground. Some seeds fell on the rocky soil and died quickly; others fell into the weeds and while they grew, the weeds choked off the growth and those seeds died as well. Only the seeds that fell on the fertile ground grew and flourished.

We are faced with a dilemma. Is the ground upon which we walk, is the path we take one of rocky soil? Is it choked with weeds? Or is the fertile soil open to the reception of the Holy Spirit, allowing us to grow in the spirit of Christ?

Will the spirit of Christ grow in us so that we are able to reach out to those in need and offer them help without demanding something in return? It is our choice what we do?

And the dilemma is that having prepared the ground on which we will walk, what shall we do about the ground around us? Is it possible that we might ignore others simply because we have the “good life?” I note with interest the reports that Rick Warren, one of today’s leading evangelists and writers, has forsaken his salary and given it back to his church. He is now leading the fight against global poverty, recognizing the call from Jesus to take care of those less fortunate.

John Wesley once pointed out that those who are starving cannot hear the call of the Spirit. We cannot follow Christ and then walk by those whose lives are cast upon the rocky ground or trapped within the weeds. Our own lives will not be any better.

We are two nations. Even in our own lives, we have two parts. We need to be careful that the life that keeps us tied to the world around us does not block us from the life that keeps us free and alive. We need to hear the call of the Holy Spirit this day, opening our hearts to the possibilities of growth and life that abound in Christ. We need to hear the call of the Holy Spirit that calls upon us to not abandon those around us suffering. lost, or in despair.

Is the path that you walk a path strewn with boulders and rocks, one that will cause you to stumble and fall? Is the path that you walk filled with the weeds of life that choke life and prevent growth? Or is the path that you walk one that allows the Holy Spirit to grow inside you, allowing you to find freedom and the promise of life eternal?

We walk a path. What path are you on?
If you would like to use my thoughts, please contact me first (Dr. Tony). I would not want you to get into trouble because you printed something without my permission or if you missed proper credit for a citation.