Thoughts for a week in August


I am at the Henderson Settlement in Kentucky this week (7 August – 13 August) with my home church’s youth group.

The Sunday blog

I didn’t get a chance to post my normal Sunday thoughts because of the trip preparation so I figured that I would do so now. A colleague was basing her sermon for Sunday in part on the passage from Romans. Here are some of the thoughts I put down for her when she asked for my thoughts.

As to the passage from Romans, consider Paul’s question.  If one does not know of Christ and/or God, how then will they ever get into heaven?  There is a philosophical argument that says that if you know nothing of sin, you cannot be a sinner. But once you become aware of sin, then you find that you are a sinner.

I don’t necessarily think that Paul is stating that one must go through Christ to get into heaven.  A devout Jew has a path separate from ours but if they deviate from their path, then they are in deep trouble (this is why I think Paul is referring to Moses at the beginning of the passage).  For us, Christ was sent as alternative and is the One whom we can trust to be there in times of need.

If I were writing a sermon, I would point out that Joseph’s brothers did not like him, let alone trust him and they had no use for the prophecies that came out of his dream.  They felt that Joseph had the good life and they had to do all the hard work.  No one likes a visionary who does not work.

Of course, we can look to the next few chapters and know how that comes out.

And there are times when our faith is tested to the max, when our eyes are no longer on Christ and we find ourselves slipping fast in the ocean of despair.  Who did Peter call on when he began to sink into the Sea of Galilee?  Whom shall we call on?

Those were my thoughts in part on the passage from Romans and how I saw the passages from Genesis and Matthew relating to it. I probably would have entitled the sermon “Trust is a Must”, a portion of a saying from the Hall of Famer bowler Billy Welu (trust is a must or your game is bust).

Notes on Henderson Settlement and the surrounding area

For those that don’t know, the Henderson Settlement is part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is located just outside Middlesboro, Kentucky in the southeast corner of Kentucky. But in one sense it is another part of the world. Cell phones don’t work in these hills and unless you have a reliable wireless network for the internet, communication is limited to regular phone lines.

In a country where the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children is set at about $21,000, the median income for this county is $22,000. There are two population centers where there is work so they raise the income but when you get outside those centers, the average income drops rather dramatically. And the poverty of the area is not limited to just this one county. The county where I lived when I was preaching at Neon UMC is about two hours north of here and its income numbers are very similar to the ones for this area.

For the youth of this area, there isn’t much hope. The only jobs are in the coal industry and we aren’t using as much coal as we did once upon a time. But using coal brings with it a variety of problems. To get to the coal, you must strip the mountain tops which destroy the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. And you have to deal with one of the most insidious diseases ever discovered, black lung disease. Let’s just say that this disease is appropriately named and you can imagine what it does and has done to many a miner.

Those who can only imagine why it is so important to fight for the unions in this country need only look to Appalachia and the fights that went on between the miners and the mine owners.

So the youth of this area stay in the area and work in the mines or they try to get out. I was told today that this area ranks in the top ten for prescription drug abuse among teenagers in the country.

Against this backdrop that is vaguely similar to the times of John Wesley and England in the early 18th century stands the church, especially the United Methodist Church, offering hope and a promise.

It is the promise that the people of this area will not be alone and that there are people who care enough to give of their time and resources to spend a week helping the people of the area. Some of this work involves building and repairing the houses of the people; other times it involves work on the settlement property (our youth did renovation work on the community pool and completed some other tasks that earlier groups had begun but were unable to complete).

For many of the youth, this trip is a life-changing experience. We often see poverty in abstract terms and we often tend to overlook the existence of poverty in own neighborhoods. But when one travels to another part of the same country and discovers conditions that one only can imagine happening in 3rd world countries, it changes one’s perspective.

This week, besides our group, there was group from New Jersey and one from Ohio. The Ohio group first came several years ago and returned each year since that original trip. I think that many of those in the New Jersey group are repeaters. I was the only one in our group that had never been here before.

It is not an easy time and if you think of it as a vacation, relaxing in the sun and swimming in the pool, don’t plan on coming. Each day starts at 7 with vespers (more on this in a moment) and then breakfast at 7:30. The work starts at 8 and you work until 11:15 when you get a break for lunch. The afternoon shift is from 1 to 4 or thereabouts. Dinner is at 5:30 so the time between the afternoon shift and dinner is used for cleaning up. (By the way, the cooks are a great bunch and they are to be applauded for the work they do preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day!)

There is a group meeting on Monday nights to give everyone some of the history of the settlement and the work done at the settlement. On Tuesday, a local bluegrass band offers up some traditional mountain music. This Thursday we will go to the local United Methodist Church for an ice cream social to support the church’s (Hope United Methodist Church, Frakes, KY) youth ministry. Friday will be a closing worship at Hope and then Saturday morning the long drive home.

I will be honest. We often toss around the idea of doing mission work without ever understanding what it is that we are speaking about. The trip to Henderson is part of the Volunteer in Mission program (or I think it is) and should be a part of every church’s plans. Maybe your church doesn’t have enough individuals to come down alone but you could always pair up with another church.

The plans for my home church next year involve staying at a United Methodist Church about ½ way down so that the drive is split into two parts. This way, the connections between Methodist churches is shown.

Giving to Henderson Settlement can be done in a number of ways and are listed on their website. We speak of supporting the church with our prayers, our tithes, our gifts, and our support. This is one way to do it.

Monday’s Vespers

As we gathered together on Sunday evening for the orientation, each group was asked which morning vesper/devotion they would like to do (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday). Our group chose Tuesday. Since no one chose Monday, I volunteered to do it.

The theme for this week was “Open Doors.”

I chose as my Scripture Luke 10: 1 – 24. I looked at the fact that 72 were sent out to do mission work. And I wondered what happened to the 60 (I assumed that 12 of the group were the 12 disciples) after they came back. I can only imagine that those 60 others went to their home and continued the work that began when they went on that first mission trip. Doors were opened for them and they had great opportunities in front of them.

And as I stood on the hillside that morning, looking at some fifty people I had never meet, I spoke of the doors that were opening for them as well as my own group and me this week. Will we go home and close those doors or we will seek the opportunities that lie before us?

Tuesday’s Vespers

For Tuesday’s vespers, I chose Mark 10: 13 – 16 as my scripture. In this passage, Jesus tells the disciples to let the children come to Him. I reminded those that were there of the Gospel reading from a couple of weeks ago where Matthew recorded that only 5000 were fed and how that was only the number of adult men that were present. Too often we forget that women and children were also there (how does the story go? That a child offered his lunch?)

I pointed out that many times that we marginalize the efforts of the youth in our churches and yet it is the youth that is the hope and future of the church. I also pointed out that we do this work, both at Henderson and at our own church, not for what we might gain but because it is part of our reaching for the perfection of Christ.

When we say that we are Christians, what does that mean? Does it mean that we have some sort of guarantee or does it mean that we may have to work just a little bit harder? What does it mean that we say that we are Methodists? Is it just another title or is there substance behind what we do?

I hope that I offered a challenge to those who heard my words on Monday and Tuesday and I hope that you will ponder the ways that you can full the statement that says, “why yes, I am a Christian. I am also a United Methodist!”

There Is A Choice


I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY.  The service starts at 11 and you are always welcome to attend.

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Romans 8: 1 – 11, and Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23.

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I don’t know about you but I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Esau had not given away his birthright to Jacob as described in today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 25: 19 – 34). Would the outcome have been any different? Would Esau have become the father of the twelve tribes? Or would Isaac still have been the father of the twelve tribes but without the double share of the inheritance that came with being the first born?

It is hard to say what would have happened but that is not our worry. That question, and the accompanying question of free will versus pre-determination, is for theologians and philosophers.

But if we say that Esau had to surrender his birthright then what we are saying is that we don’t have any free will and that everything is pre-determined. And to say that everything is pre-determined is to say that we don’t have much say in what is to happen to us. That’s good news for some because it means that they never have to take responsibility for their actions. They can do whatever they desire and say that they had no control over their actions.

But the bad news is that if we have no say, then we have no hope. And if we have no hope, then we have no future. And from the very start of His ministry, Jesus said He came to offer hope which means that we have a future.

But along with this future comes a choice. We can choose what we want to do but we have to be responsible for our actions and we have to face the consequences of what we do. We can see the world in terms of the things around us or we can see the world in terms of God’s plan for us and how we fit into that plan, even if we can’t figure out what that particular role might be.

Esau’s problem wasn’t a matter of pre-determination and that his brother Isaac would rule over him. It was that he was more concerned about his need for food and his desire to resolve that problem right then and there. He gave little thought to the future. Paul points out that when we lead our lives that way, for the now and immediate gratification, we are likely to end up in trouble.

We try to use the law to control our lives but as Paul pointed out in today’s reading (Romans 8: 1 – 11), the law is broken and flawed. Still, many people will try to use the law to control not only their own lives but the lives of others as well. Just as those who find in pre-determination the opportunity to do anything and not have to accept responsibility for their actions, so too do people use the law to protect themselves from the realities of the world around them and the tasks that God would have them do.

But, in the end, as Paul so often pointed out, the law and obedience to the law cannot deliver what people seek; the law cannot, in the end, deliver anything but despair and heartbreak. The law ties us to the present with wishful glances backwards; the law can never give us a vision of the future. Just as Esau was willing to give up his future for the present, so too does our reliance on the law prevent us from thinking and seeing the future. And our reliance on this type of thinking may have more to do with the problems of the world and our ability, or rather, our inability to solve them.

James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church & Society for The United Methodist Church, gave the 2008 commencement address at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. While he was speaking about members of Congress and what they intend to do when they come to Washington and what they end up doing, he could have just as easily spoken about many of us when he said

Somewhere along the way many decided to cash in and get their own piece of the rock. We are living in a time of moral crisis. Our values have been systematically subverted since September 11, 2001, and our indifference is not only lethargic but lethal. The quiet acceptance of torture and preemptive war eats away at the soul of American life. Our acquiescence to the big lies told by the rich and powerful—and repeated by the media ad infinitum—is frightening and demoralizing (From http://www.sugrads.org/articles/news_from_su/2008_commencement_address.aspx)

You can say that this is the way the system works and there is nothing that you can do about it. But it is a system that allows politicians to bend and break the laws, to say whatever is needed to get elected without meaning it. It is a system that allows ministers and preachers to preach hatred, exclusion, and violence in the name of God. It is a system that allows merchants and manufacturers to send work overseas in the name of low prices and cheap quality. It is a system that tells our young that money and things that are bought with money are more important that what you think or say or do. It is a system that reduces education to a mindless acceptance of the status quo and that offers little in the way of a challenge for all children.

If the system doesn’t work, then you have to fix the system. Some might say that this will require a violent revolution; I think not. But change will not come if you choose to stand aside and let others take away your rights, your freedoms, and your beliefs. You cannot do this simply by thinking about it; you must seek the solution.

In his book, “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong”, Robin Meyers issued a call for a non-violent response for the problems facing this country and this world. He wrote that faith should be seen more as an action-based verb than as a noun. Faith, he said, should be more than simply believing certain things; it should be about doing those things which need to be done so that the Kingdom of Heaven can be built on earth.

We must, as the prophet Micah wrote, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We may despise injustice but we must do more than shake our heads and say how terrible acts of injustice are. Too often, we stand by and let injustice and oppression take place.

As I was coming home from church last Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear the Catholic Mass broadcast on the Fordham University radio station (WFUV). I don’t always get this opportunity since the broadcast starts at 11 and there are many times when I am out of radio range. But when I do get the chance, it is an opportunity to continue the worship of the morning. And this last Sunday I got to hear the presiding priest speak of a friend of his whose sister was killed by the El Salvador army in the early 1980’s.

She was one of several Christian workers killed at that time because they sought to bring the Gospel message to the peasants. And in doing so, she and her co-workers brought the anger of the El Salvador government. In his homily, the priest did not say whether his friend was angry at the death of his sister or the manner in which it was done; though, it stands to reason that he and his family were angry and upset. He could have done many things but the thing that he did was to channel his emotions through his skills as a lawyer and seek justice. It took a long time and it required overcoming many obstacles, including our own government who was supporting the El Salvadorian government at that time. But in the end, his quiet, persistent and non-violent efforts brought about justice.

But you will say, as others have said, that violence is sometimes necessary and often times the only way. Some say (and have said) that slavery would not have ended were it not for the Civil War some 140 years ago. I am not that certain that it did. Slavery still exists, perhaps not in the physical bondage that we associate with the term, but most certainly in economic terms.

It may be that the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s would not have had its success if it were not for dogs attacking children and water from high pressure hoses tearing away the skin of protestors in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 or Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Easter Sunday, March 7, 1965. It may have been the violence and the killings that caused people to cry out but it did not end the racism that was the cause of segregation. As long as one person continues to believe that the color of their skin or the size of their bank account makes them a better person than someone else, then racism will continue. As long as we see others less fortunate than we are as not worthy of the same treatment that we expect for ourselves, then racism will continue to exist in this country and throughout the world.

Peace and justice will not come if people hear the words but do nothing. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus pointed out that there would be those who heard the words but, like the seeds that fell on the rocky soil and did not grow, will do nothing. They sometimes even use the the rocks to build a stand that will give them a better view of what is happening and let them cheer as the parade passes us by. But it moves them further away from the Gospel, not closer, and so the Gospel dies, like seeds scattered on rocky soil.

If we want the Gospel to grow, then we have to get in the dirt. Yes, we will get dirty but if you want the seeds of the Gospel planted right, you have to get in the dirt and there is no way that you will not get dirty. And then you can start removing the rocks that block the future and keep things from growing. We are very familiar with the rocks that block the future. Gandhi called them the seven deadly sins and, if we did nothing, would destroy us: They are wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice.

Each of these sins works to keep the Gospel from growing. But when you work in the field to remove them, that is when the Gospel takes hold and things start to grow. But you have to choose to get off the side; you have to choose to do what it is that you say you believe in. Faith becomes more than a noun, it becomes the verb.

We know there is a choice and we have the opportunity to make the right choice. We can stand by, saying the system will not work and there is nothing we can do. We may believe that our choice affects no one. Or we can choose to accept Jesus as our Savior, knowing that as His disciple, we can make a difference. I have spoken of Thomas Pettepiece before and I used his words today as my closing prayer.

Lord, I already know the best way to alter my life-style to the best advantage for all — live like Jesus. The Christian existence ideally is to imitate what you do. You send the sun and rain on everyone, you want me to bet back to the basic facts of life, to love without reservation, to distinguish between life’s needs and life itself, and seek first your kingdom knowing you will meet all my other needs.

Still it is easy to trust in the “things” of today and feel like it is up to me to see that humanity survives. Keep me from undue worry and pride. Remind me that life is a gift — not a right, and that my attitude toward the ultimate resources and values in life will determine how the earth’s resources will be handled and provided for those who need them. I have already formed many habits of consuming and acting. Guide me in aligning my personal priorities to conform to my awareness of a world hungry. May my life-style become more compatible with our biosphere and supportive of peoples around the world.

Lord, help me choose a simpler life-style that promotes solidarity with the world’s poor, helps me appreciate nature more, affords greater opportunity to work together with my neighbors, reduces my use of limited resources, creates greater inner harmony, saves money, allows time for mediation and prayer, incites me to take political and social action.

May all my decisions about my style of life celebrate the joy of life that comes from loving you. AMEN (from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

Tending the Garden


It is an old story but the church is a period of transition, change, and ultimately trouble. This is nothing new. Every since religion, be it Christian or otherwise, became organized, it has found itself in transition and change. It has always been in battle with outside forces which seek to change the church and which the church seeks to change. It is just that now these changes are more apparent and more public.

It does not matter what the issue is. It could be war, the economy, abortion, or sexuality; the church finds itself struggling with the nature of the Gospel and what the outside, secular world wants to do. As Jesus said in Matthew, the Word is planted in fertile soil, it is planted in some poor soil, and it is planted in rocky soil. Only in the fertile soil does the Word grow well. But the fertile soil also allows weeds to grow and it is possible that the weeds will choke out the Word.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus seems to say that we should not worry about this growth of weeds and wheat; that when the harvest has come, the weeds will be separated and destroyed and only the good wheat will be stored in the grain house. What bothers me is that many people seem to think that they are the ones who should destroy the weeds.

Yes, when one is growing a garden, one needs to keep the garden in good shape. That means keeping the weeds out. But it is an on-going process; unless one has prepared the bed in which the garden is to grow very carefully, there will always be weeds and, thus, one will always be working on the garden.

But at this point I have a problem with the analogy. What measures should we take to keep our garden neat and “weed” free? Should we condemn those whose lifestyles do not match ours? How should we destroy the weeds? I am always amazed that some of the most beautiful wildflowers in nature are often called weeds when in someone’s garden.

The problem is that the church is part of the secular world and if we destroy the secular world, we risk destroying the church. And the church cannot always remove itself from the world. Yes, there are probably going to be times when the church should remove itself from the world, put up walls and keep the forces of evil outside. Where it not for monasteries in medieval times that served as the repositories for knowledge, much of what we know today would have been lost in time of the “Dark Ages.”

But even then, the world continued and eventually the good that knowledge brings overcame the evil that accompanies such knowledge. So too will that occur in this day and age. Paul, writing to the Romans at a time of great stress and conflict, pointed out that there will be times when things do not look well. But they will always be accompanied by the hope and promise found in the Gospel. And that as the children of God, that hope and promise are for us. So we must persevere and have patience.

Jacob met God on the road one day and was told of the great promise God had for him. As descendants, spiritually and physically of Jacob, we have inherited that promise. It is a promise that this is our world. But in giving us this world, we are required to take care of it. We cannot wait for the harvest to cast out the weeds; we must make sure that the weeds do not grow.

But this does not mean that we cast aside those whom we disagree with or whose lifestyle or thoughts are different from ours. Ours is not a garden of one variety; it is a garden of many plants, many colors, and many fruits.

We are constantly reminded that we are in a war against terror. But our fight against terror cannot use the same weapons of war or thought; for to do so simply fuels the flames of hatred, persecution and injustice that began the terrorism in the first place. It was noted the other day that extremists, be they Islamic fundamentalist or extreme right-wing white hate groups, seek the disadvantaged and the disillusioned for membership. These young people find in the words of the extremists recruiting them the hope and promise they do not find in the world in which they live. They see a church that excludes them, or treats them as second class citizens. They do not see the hope and promise of the Gospel.

We cannot end terrorism in this world by violence, for violence only breeds more violence. We cannot end terrorism by hating terrorism, for hate only brings more hatred. Terrorism is bred in the hatred, injustice and persecution found in this world. To end terrorism, we must end the hatred, the injustice and the persecution. We must make the hope and the promise of the Gospel the outcome of the world.

The challenge that the church today faces is not a new one. The battles that the church faces today are not new ones. And the answer, the means are also not new; we have heard the Gospel for over two thousand years. Isn’t about time that we listen to the words? Do not the sounds that we hear outside our walls tell us that we need to focus on the Gospel?

The Gospel message that Jesus brought us tells us to take care of our garden. Paul is telling us that it will be hard work but in the end it will be profitable work. We have heard from Jacob that this is the place we must be and this is the place where we will find God. We take care of our garden, this world, not by destroying this world, but by destroying that which causes the world to become full of weeds. When we heed the message of the Gospel, we kill the forces that breed war, injustice, hatred, and persecution. When we heed the message of the Gospel, the harvest is fruitful and there is plenty.

Yes, working in the garden is hard and sometimes it seems as if it would be just easier to burn the garden and destroy the fields. But that destroys the world and us as well. So tend to the garden and see the rewards in due course.