“Which Team Do You Root For?”


This will be the back page for the Sunday, July 22, 2018 (9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.


What do Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Boston University have in common?  They are three of over 100 colleges and universities supported by the United Methodist Church.

Now, it does beg a question.  When SMU plays Baylor University (a Baptist institution) in football, or Duke plays Wake Forest (another Baptist institution) in basketball, or Boston University plays Boston College (a Roman Catholic institution) in hockey, who does God root for?

I graduated from Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, TN.  The school mascot is “The Panthers”, the school colors are red and blue, and the fight song is “Down the Field”.   I don’t know why the Panthers were selected as the mascot, but the school colors are the same as the University of Mississippi and the fight song was the same as the University of Tennessee.  It was a merger of several ideas that produced the sports identity of Bartlett High School.

Now, Paul points out that when you proclaim that you are a Christian, you forsake your national identity or heritage (a point not often understood today).

And as a people without a national identity, we reach out to all the people, no matter who they may be.

~Tony Mitchell (I root for Truman State [’71], Missouri [’75], and Iowa [’90], but you already knew that!)

“The One Person”


A mediation for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), 26 July 2015 based on 2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15, Ephesians 3: 14 – 21, and John 6: 1 – 21.

A few years ago I found a thought by Willie Nelson, “one person could not change the world but one person with a message could.” But what perhaps is the message?

Uriah could have easily done what David wanted him to do and no one would have said anything. But Uriah knew that his men didn’t have the opportunity for the comforts that David was encouraging him to enjoy. I am sure that other generals and military leaders would have done exactly that. I think that leadership sometimes requires that leaders understand what is taking place in the field.

A number of years ago there was a movement in business to seek excellence. Two of the outcomes of this movement were 1) most innovations occur at the basic level and not in the upper levels of management and 2) good leaders managed by “walking around” and studying what was happening at the basic levels of the company. In one sense that is what Uriah is saying, “my men do not have these privileges so I will not enjoy them.”

Of course, in this particular case, Uriah’s insistence on holding onto his vision of what was right lead to his own death as David attempted to cover up his own problems. But David paid a penalty for his sins and errors in the cover-up and we need to keep that in mind.

In the Gospel reading for today, Philip (and probably the other disciples as well) does not immediately see the solution to the problem of feeding all the people on that hillside. Now, John the writer notes that Jesus already knew what He was going to do but He wanted Philip to begin to see the answer. And, of course, the answer was provided by the young man who had brought a lunch of bread and fish.

There seems to be a problem in society today. Faced with numerous problems, we tend to think in terms of traditional answers. And we bang our heads against the wall time and time again trying to make the traditional answer work. The traditional answer for Uriah would have been to take advantage of the benefits of his position but that would have done anything for his men. The traditional response for the disciples would have been to tell the people to get their own lunches but while that may have worked, it would not have not opened the minds and spirits of all the people, including the disciples, to what God can do in their lives.

I have said it before, your encounter with Christ is likely to change your life. You will see the world in a different way. In one sense, that is what Paul told the Ephesians. You cannot lead the same life you were living after you encounter Christ (as he well knew).

One person with a vision can change the world – I don’t know if Willie Nelson was thinking of Christ when he made the that comment but I do know that Jesus Christ saw the world in a different way and He worked to make that vision a possibility. Our response today is to hear the call that Christ is making and understand that in accepting it we can change the world.

“Journey to the Promised Land”


This is the message that I gave at Grace UMC, St. Cloud, MN for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 31 July 1994. The Scriptures that I used for this message were Exodus 13: 17 – 22 and 2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7.

This is (was) the 11th sermon I ever wrote. I am not sure what Sunday in the church calendar this particular Sunday represented nor what the regular lectionary readings were. I was still developing as a lay speaker and followed the pattern used my pastor of one reading and a selected verse that may or not have come from the reading. My own style would begin to develop the following summer when my role as a certified lay speaker would change from an occasional Sunday or two to a weekly service and message to three churches in Kansas (see “Hide and Seek”).

The significance of this message, at least for me, is this is the first time that I had to say good-bye to a church where I had been more than just a member. Grace was a church that had given me an opportunity, and a church where I may have helped change it’s direction.

An interesting note – after the service was over and I was greeting everyone (and saying good-bye) a visitor came up and said that she wasn’t sure about coming to a Methodist church. She had been at the other Methodist church in town and the pastor there was leaving. She came to Grace and I was saying good-bye. I pointed out that I was not the pastor and that he would be back next week and she should come again. Of course, since I was gone, I never found out what she did.

This has been edited since it was first published.

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A recent report on CNBC stated that the average American makes eleven moves during their lifetime. This is an interesting piece of information. First it tells us that our society is a very mobile society. This mobility is also increasing because a few years ago the average number of moves an individual made was three. We have become a society seeking a direction.

This report also tells you something about me; something that my mother has known for some time, that I am definitely not average. Because my father was a career military officer, a job that required that my family move often and the other moves I have made professionally, the move I will make at the end of August will be something on the order of my fortieth move.

Now, moving from one place to another can be a traumatic event. The same report that gave us the statistics about moving also reported that moving is the third leading cause of stress, behind death and divorce, in families today. It is not easy to move from familiar surroundings to strange or new ones. All you have to do is ask Sandra about our first move to Odessa, Texas, back in 1989. Even the Israelites would have rather stayed in slavery in Egypt than move to the new and yet unknown Promised Land. In Exodus 14: 10 – 14 we read

“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; and they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”(Exodus 14: 10 – 14)

But even if you were never to move from your place of birth (and there must be three people who have never moved in order for the statistics to work out), the journey through life can still be frightening and uncertain.

Consider two individuals, both young men in their mid-twenties. The first young man, fresh from college, was uncertain about what the future held and was also uncertain as to what was in the world. He was not ready to venture out into the world. The second young man, also just out of college, was certain that he knew the secret to life and the promises it held. With this confidence, he set forth in his life to make the world better.

The first young man was Peter Jenkins, whose travel across America I have discussed before. When he graduated from college in the mid 1970’s, he felt lost and unsure of his future. In an effort to answer these unsettling questions, to find out who he was, he decided to walk across America. That walk led him to Mobile, Alabama, one early spring night in 1975.

After finishing dinner and promising to meet a friend at a party, Peter saw a sign advertising a revival meeting in downtown Mobile. More curious than anything else, he went to that revival. After all, he had been to parties before. And besides, as many young people have come to find out, the thrill of alcohol and drugs quickly wears off. At the call of the evangelist, Peter began to feel like

“I was going to die. The deepest corners of my being were lit with thousand-watt light bulbs. It was as if God himself were looking into my soul, through all my excuses, my dark secrets. All of me was exposed in God’s searchlight.

When the question ended its roaring echo, I decided for the first time to admit I needed God. This must be the God I had been searching for, and the same One they worshiped back in Murphy (N.C.) at Mount Zion.” (Peter Jenkins, A Walk Across America, page 261)

With the revelation and knowledge that Jesus Christ had died for him, Peter Jenkins accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior. He then could appreciate how the Holy Spirit could guide him and how it can guide us today.

In the dark in downtown Mobile as I walked home, I felt the smile on my face and the glow of heaven around me. My soul had been like a wavering compass needle, but now it finally pointed to true north. I had found my lifetime direction. (A Walk Across America, page 261)

Even the Israelites were afraid of the trip from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land. Yet they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

The other young man in my story was John Wesley. Some two hundred years before Peter Jenkins began his walk across America, John Wesley came to America. While Peter Jenkins may have not been certain as to what he was going to do, there was no uncertainty in the purpose of John Wesley. Having recently graduated from Oxford, Wesley was ready to put into practice the methods that he, his brother Charles, and their friends had worked out during their studies at Oxford. It was tehse methods which he felt were the key to achieving Salvation.

John Wesley came to Georgia with a great deal of joy and expectation. But he left in a cloud of fear and failure. Prepared as he and his brother, Charles, were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. John Wesley returned from Georgia feeling that he was a failure because he had not fully accepted the Holy Spirit.

The symbol for the United Methodist Church, as we see in the tapestry to my left, is the Cross and the Flame. It is by the Cross that we have the promise of Salvation through Jesus Christ and it is the Flame of the Holy Spirit which guides and illuminates us.

Only at that moment we have come to call the Aldersgate moment when Wesley accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior did the movement that became the Methodist Church become successful. Only when he accepted Christ as his personal Savior did John Wesley understand the direction his life was to take. By turning his life over to Christ completely and fully, did Wesley gain the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible and successful.

Neither the success of Grace Church these past few years nor the success of Grace Church in the future will be because one person did great things. No single person present today has the power or the capability to accomplish what Grace Church has done. Just as Paul wrote to Timothy

“That is why I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God which is yours through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7)

The success of Grace Church today is because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to become the empowering force in our lives. When Sandra, the kids, and I first came to Grace Church some three years ago, only one member of this church other than Pastor John and his family said hello. Now, visitors often say they cannot leave without everyone in the church saying hello. Three years ago the average attendance was around 70 and the discussion of each Administrative Council meeting was which bills to pay. Today, the average attendance is over 110 and tonight we are having a special Ad Council meeting to discuss the purchase of land for the new Grace Church.

If we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, it creates a fire which cannot be put out. It is like magnesium burning, hot and intensely bright. Magnesium was the metal used in the first flash bulbs (remember Christmas past when someone took your picture and you had a dot in front of your eyes?). It is that flame, the flame of the Holy Spirit burning inside each one of us which provides Grace Church with its power and strength. And as others receive the Joy brought about by the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ, this fire gets hotter, brighter and larger.

We are at a time when many people have lost their direction and are looking for guidance. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the Israelites through the wilderness with the cloud by day and the flame by night, so too does it guide Grace Church today. And it is the Holy Spirit which can let Grace Church be the guiding light to St. Cloud and Minnesota. As Jesus said

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14- 16)

But the choice is yours. Will you today accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Will you let the Holy Spirit light the fire that warms your soul and provide direction to your life? Without Him, we wander through the wilderness. With Him, we can complete that journey to the promised land.

What Do You Do With The Gifts You Have Been Given?


I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (map) this Sunday, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost  (2 August 2009).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35.

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The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that our collective vision of the future may not be what we think it will be. We speak of new technology and how the new technology will change the world. We marvel how dissidents in Iran used Facebook and Twitter to communicate their dissatisfaction with the election results. Of course, this requires that we understand what Facebook is and how Twitter works. But, in the end, the dissension in Iran was quickly shut down because the Iranian government was able to block those means of communication.

The dissension in Iran may yet turn into revolution if the dissidents can harness their collective power and use the creativity behind Facebook and Twitter to bring about true and radical change. Until that time, the changes in that society, like any society which is repressed, will be small in size and slow to change.

Technology can only work if people understand what it can and cannot do; the advent of text messaging (of which I take Twitter to be a form) is proving to be a more serious driving hazard than driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In 1942, this country began what became known as the Manhattan Project. In combination with physicists and chemists from Great Britain, Canada, and many of the occupied countries of Europe, we began working on the atomic bomb. This was done in part because there was a fear that Nazi Germany was undertaking a similar project. It was well understood that this weapon would be one of immense destructive capability and that the first country to create this weapon would dominate the world for years to come.

In the end, it was discovered that the Nazi atomic weapon program was nowhere as advanced as the Allies had believed. And while that may have been sufficient rationale for the suspension or stoppage of the project, the rising number of casualties in the Pacific and the rather conservative estimate of some 1 million casualties in an invasion of the Japanese islands prompted many to think of using the atomic weapon as a means to ending the war. It is also known that President Truman was confident that the United States would be the preeminent power in the post-World War era since it was thought this country alone held the secrets to such weapons. It was not known in 1945 but became quickly known in the years following the war that the Soviet Union, through the efforts of its spies, also had knowledge of the weapons and would build weapons that would match the destructive power of the United States atomic arsenal.

And while those whose creativity could see that the immense power held within the nucleus of an atom could also be used for more beneficial reasons, it was the destructive capacity of the weapons that would dominate our thinking for almost sixty years. There were those who understood what unleashing the genie of atomic energy in the form of weapons meant but their voices were silenced by those who saw power only in terms of brute force and political manipulation.

In my opinion, we as humans and as a society have been given two great gifts. The first is that very gift of creativity, the ability to see beyond the limits of the real world and well into the future, to see things that never were and say why not (borrowing from Robert Kennedy and George Bernard Shaw).

But too often we use the creativity for our own purposes, to gather things for ourselves rather than for all. David was given the gift of creativity and it was evident in his leadership and his ability to compose poems and songs. Yet, he used his creativity to abuse the power of his position and, in the end he paid the price for his greed and arrogance. The prophet Nathan tells David that his child with Bathsheba will die and that his later years will be marked with tragedy and tumult. The glory that David sought and which should have been his will go to Solomon (whose own creativity and insight will be both renowned and reviled).

We live in a world where people are starving and dying, where even living at some minimal level of existence is more often than not hoped for rather than a reality. In an effort to bring food to starving people, we destroy acres and acres of rain forest and turn the lands into grain fields and pasture land. But in doing so, we alter the ecosystem of the planet. The Sahara Desert increases each year, moving further and further southward because people chop down what trees are standing for firewood to cook what food they might have. But in removing the trees, barriers that would prevent the expansion of the desert are removed and what is gained in the short run is lost in the long term.

Even in this country, amidst the rhetoric and debate over health care, we forget that each year the number of individuals without health care coverage of some sort rises. It may be proper to debate the cost of health care coverage but what happens when there are many who have no health care and cannot pay for it?

How can anyone who proclaims themselves to be people of God argue that healthcare reform costs too much when there are so many who cannot afford what is out there right now? How can anyone say that we should not rush this decision because it is too important when each year the number negatively affected rises?

In the Gospel message for today, Jesus rebukes the people for seeking Him out because He fed them for free. They were more interested in what they could get from Jesus for themselves than they were in what they could give in return. Their interests in the bread from heaven were self-centered and selfish while Jesus offered them something more important. But many of the people then and throughout the Gospels would not commit to a path of walking with Jesus if it meant giving up what they had. To each one of those individuals who was given the gift that Christ offered but who turned it down, the present was more important than the future. Their own well-being was more important than the well-being of others; yet when one helps others, we are helping ourselves. We cannot live in a world where some may have and others may not; any plan that provides for one without providing for all is not a good plan and has no vision of the future.

We have been given two gifts, the gift of creativity and God’s grace. With them, we can do wonders. Paul tells us that the gift of creativity takes many forms. We only need to see what God has given us.

And we find that in God’s grace. For it is through God’s grace that our future is secure. But when we reduce what we have been given to our own selfish interests, then we basically say that we have no desire to be a part of the body of Christ. What the gift of creativity does is give us a means to find a way to make a difference in the world, to help people find their own self-respect and dignity, to make sure that people have a safe place to sleep, to have a warm meal today and grow food for tomorrow.

Our faith comes becomes we believe but our faith is nothing unless we use the gifts that God has given us. What are you going to do with the gifts that you have been given?

How Do You Grow A Garden?


Here is the 6th of the Friday Night in the Garden Vespers series.

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How does a garden grow? It grows with thought and planning. It grows with the right combination of water and nutrients. And it grows because someone went out and dug up the ground, planted the seeds, and added the water and nutrients.

On a number of occasions Jesus spoke of the efforts of people to plant seeds. In the parable of the sower, some of the seeds fell on bare ground where the birds ate them, some of the seeds fell on the rocky ground and died because the soil lacked the right moisture, and some of the seeds fell among the weeds and were choked by those weeds. When there is competition for the nutrients, there will be problems for the plants. But if the ground is cleared and properly prepared, the seeds that you want to grow will do so and the rewards will be evident.

It is possible to plant seeds in the ground somewhere, do nothing to them or for them and come back later to find a fantastic flower garden, some beautiful fruit trees, or some edible grains. We all recall the story of Johnny Appleseed walking across Ohio and Indiana planting apple trees wherever he went. And while it is a nice story, what he did plant were apple orchards, carefully cultivating them and setting them up for people to use. His was a missionary effort not unlike Paul traveling around Asia Minor, planting churches and spreading the Gospel message. Those he met and taught then went and started their own churches.

The garden that became the church in Colossus was first planted by Epaphras. Epaphras was a convert to Christianity after having met Paul probably in prison. The nurturing environment in which the church in Colossus grew was founded in faith, love, and hope. The Colossians’ faith was grounded in the nature and work of Jesus Christ. Love flows from faith and proves the genuineness of one’s faith. Hope is the result of that faith.

Paul writes to the Colossians to remind them that they, neither Epaphras nor the church congregation, are alone in the care of this garden. All who Paul meets are told of the growth of the Gospel and those who Paul tells are brought in for the purpose of carrying for the garden.

So too is it for us. While we may look at the wonderful flowers that bloom in these gardens and we rejoice in the vegetables that are harvested for the food closet, we also know that these gardens represent more than that. They represent a rebirth of hope in a town that many have said has no hope, no future. But if God can rescue us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons (Colossians 1: 13), then perhaps a simple garden can brighten up a spot and let hope shine throw.

A garden grows because people care about it and for it. The message of the Gospel spreads because people care about the message and want others to hear the promise of hope that the Gospel brings. We might come to a garden alone, to enjoy what it offers, but while we are here, we find more than wonderful flowers to smell and look at, we see more than vegetables. We sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. And when we leave, though we came alone, we do not leave alone. We leave with the Holy Spirit, refreshed and renewed, prepared to spread the seed of the Gospel wherever we may go in the next few days.

What Have We Been Taught?


This is the message that I gave on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.

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I subscribe to a magazine called Bible Review. It is an interesting monthly journal that gives me something to think about when it comes to reading the Bible. But what is also interesting are the letters written to the editor. In the August issue were a number of letters. In response to an article about Enoch and Jesus, Doyne Mitchell (no relation, I can assure you) of North Hollywood, CA, wrote,

How dare you presume to proclaim yourself Bible reviewers while printing Birger A. Pearson’s “Enoch and Jesus”? Mr. Pearson’s attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus is to deny both.

There is no equal to Jesus of Nazareth. He is Lord God (YHWH), Savior of sinful humanity (John 1: 29, 14: 6). The biblical Enoch makes no claim to deity! Mr. Pearson leaves out a vital reference to the biblical Enoch: Hebrews 11: 5 – 6. Enoch was taken up by God, because of his great faith, evidently something neither Mr. Pearson nor BR possesses! (Letter to the editor of Bible Review, August, 2003)

Mr. Pearson responded in an editorial note that he had made no attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus but rather to compare their stories as handed down in the traditions about them. He also added that since the writer did not know him, there was no way he, the writer, could determine whether Mr. Pearson had faith or not.

In an earlier letter Rico Carnevale of Pukalani, HI wrote concerning a letter in a previous issue where the writer canceled his subscription to Bible Review.

So another subscription is canceled? So BR “twists the Scriptures to justify its ‘evil work'”?

I find each issue thought-provoking, mentally challenging and very educational. If I wanted a one-interpretation-only faith magazine, I could find several on the newsstand, and they would do the thinking for me.

Continue the fine work. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)

The very next letter was also interesting. Harvey Stoneburner of Brooklyn, NY wrote

I notice that you frequently get letters from intemperate people who denounce your magazine for being a “false teacher.” They seem to think you try to turn people into atheists.

Well, all my life I have been an atheist. Your magazine helped me appreciate the Bible and helped convince me of its basic validity. This past Sunday, I was baptized and inducted into the Presbyterian Church. All I can say is, “I was blind, and now I can see.” Thank you for your good magazine. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)

We live in a complex world, a world in which our ability to understand what is happening is constantly challenged. For the most part though, the complexity of the world never comes into play. It is easy to see life in very simple terms and we are quite happy do so.

It is quite easy then to let others do our thinking for us. You can see it in the letters to the editor to journals like Bible Review. Many readers do not want their view of the Bible challenged by intellectual thoughts; to do so or to be forced to view something in a different view is upsetting. Life should be simple; life should be in black and white. So whenever something happens to upset that simplicity; whenever we are forced to face the fact that life is not as simple as it seems, we get very uncomfortable.

What we have read in the Gospel these past few weeks is Jesus’ explanation about what the bread of life is that he was providing. But while he was explaining about God’s grace and the reward of heaven, the people were expecting real bread, food for the table. The problem that we are becoming aware of in today’s Gospel reading is that the people were not willing to go beyond the present; they were not willing to do what was required of them. Society at that time had made faith a matter of law and obedience to day-by-day rules. There was no need for people to think independently, as Jesus was asking them to do.

But it was because that Jesus was asking them to think for themselves, to look beyond the present, to not accept the status quo, people were getting upset. Life was simple even if the laws of the time were at times contradictory or repressive. And those who benefited from the enactment and enforcement of those laws correctly saw that Jesus would take away from them that which they had gained, rightly or wrongly. Jesus challenged them and rather than accept the challenge, rather than open their minds to the possibilities gained through God’s grace, they reacted with emotion.

Those who felt threatened by Jesus’ ministry saw their lives in black and white. They did not want to see Jesus outside the image of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. They did not like being challenged to see God’s work before them. Yet, that was what was happening before their eyes. And because they were challenged they were defensive and angry. It is understandable that they would get angry. There is something in the human nature that causes people to get angry when the way they do things and have done things is challenged.

More times than not, when we react with emotion, it is an angry emotion. There are times when that may be appropriate. Christians may respond in controlled anger to injustice and sin but they should never be consumed by such anger. Instead, those are opportunities when the expression of Christ’s love for other is best expressed.

When we let our anger drive our emotions, when our decisions are made by our anger, we can be assured that the results will never be what we want. Paul pointed out to the Ephesians that we should never “let the sun go down on our anger.” (Ephesians 4: 26)  He knew that we should not allow our anger to fester or continue for long. He was reminding the Ephesians of what Jesus had said earlier,

“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

In the verses preceding the reading for today Absalom, David’s son, had led a rebellion against David and the kingdom. At first Absalom was simply angry at the rape and killing of his sister by his half-brother. It appears that David was incensed by his one son’s actions towards his half-sister but there is no record that he took any punitive action. This inaction, by which David abdicated his responsibility, both as a king and as a father, led to Absalom’s further action.

But in the battles that followed, the armies of Israel defeated the armies lead by Absalom and he was killed. The Cushite comes to David and proclaims victory. He saw the victory as a vindication for the kingdom as lead by David; but failed to see the personal cost to David. The problem with war is that the personal cost is often overlooked.

There are many lessons learned from this episode in the life of David. David’s loyalty to his family blinded him when it came to making decisions as king. His inability to act as king almost lost him his kingdom. The actions of his sons went unpunished and the anger that Absalom held for his brother and his father ultimately led to his own death.

Paul challenges us, through his letter to the Ephesians, to look at how we react in this world. It was not enough to just control our anger. Rather, we need to live life differently, to change the way things are done and to become responsible for our actions.

General William T. Sherman, the man perhaps most responsible for the concept of total war, understood this. He said,

War is at best barbarism . . . Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot, nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. (From Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth C. Davis)

Those who call for war, those who call for angry responses more often than not do not understand what the consequences of their actions will be. Those who are safe from the harm are often the loudest to call for action when they know that they themselves will not be harmed. And it is not just in war that the loudest cries come from the least oppressed, the ones who will not take the ultimate actions.

Paul’s challenge to us requires we see life in new terms. Not only must we change our ways, we must work together to see that the goals of the community are reached. It is no longer appropriate to do things the “old” way; life in Christ requires that we do things differently. Paul in saying, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Ephesians 4: 28) This was not simply a call to stop stealing or being greedy but a call to be generous, to have a true change in attitude.

Paul reminds us that we must ultimately follow God’s example. We must walk in love as Christ loved us and lead a life in which what we say and do are imitations of what Christ said and did on earth. We will always be aware that evil thoughts and actions are always possible but if we remember that it is God’s own Spirit that lives on in us, we are apt to be more selective in what we say, do, and think.

As we come to the table this morning, we are reminded that what we would do, that what we should say, was first expressed that night in the Upper Room. All that Jesus alluded to in the days after he fed the multitude came to pass with the Last Supper with the disciples. We are reminded that the bread that we partake today is the bread that Jesus himself gave us freely and without reservation or qualification. We are reminded that the juice that we drink is the representation of the blood Jesus shed for our sins.

We come to the table, not judging others or judging those who come with us but confessing in our own sins. We leave refreshed by the bread of life, by the Spirit of Christ present in our lives. Our presence at the table this morning is a reminder of all that we have been taught. And what we have been taught will guide us through the coming days.


Life’s Little Rewards


This is the message that I gave on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 August 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.

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David’s story presents an interesting series of contrasts. ON the one hand, we have David’s successes and wise actions. He asked God for guidance through his prayers. He punished the assassins of one his enemies. He prayed for God’s deliverance. He brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He praised God for his goodness. He offered sacrifices to God and blessed the people of Israel. He confessed his sins before God.

Both the Judeans and the Israelites anointed him King, thus combining the two kingdoms into one. He conquered Jerusalem. His armies defeated the Philistines, the Moabites, the Syrians, and the Ammonites.

But he also had plenty of troubles and not so wise actions. He seduced Bathsheba and ordered the murder of her husband, Uriah. The child that he conceived with Bathsheba died in birth, leaving the relationship with Bathsheba some what strained. He angered God by ordering the census of the people of Israel. And he failed to forgive Absalom, his son, or instruct him.

His relationship with his son may not have been the best to begin with. In the passages of 2 Samuel leading up to today’s reading, Absalom has murdered his half brother Amnon in retaliation for his rape of their half sister Tamar. He also taken steps to overthrow his father David as king of all Israel. It is understandable why David doesn’t like Absalom and has, in fact, sought to kill him. But the loss of a son will always be a traumatic event, especially when they may have been some hope of reconciliation.

Though the annals of history glorify the victories and ignore the defeats and personal flaws of many ancient rulers, the Bible graphically details all of David’s sins and weaknesses. David is no mythical hero; he is a flesh-and-blood human being whose great strengths are matched by great weaknesses.

For we the readers, these stories offer us three lessons. First, they show that we all need the salvation that God alone offers to those who trust him.

Second, David’s sin with Bathsheba robbed him of moral authority in his own family. It paralyzed his ability to correct his own sons. There are consequences even to forgiven sins. Third, though both Saul and David both sinned, there was a significant difference between them. David took public responsibility for his sins and openly sought God’s forgiveness. Saul made excuses and pretended that all was right between the Lord and him. God can and will forgive our sins but we must also be honest with ourselves, with others, and most importantly with God Himself.

So how do we live our lives today? How do we deal with the problems that face us? It seems that Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians is as valid today as it was when he first wrote those words. In today’s world, we found out what David found out; that it is very easy to fall for the temptations that are in the world. In Ephesians 4:30 Paul writes

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4: 30)

Paul is saying that Holy Spirit of God should never be pushed away, ignored, rejected. If we remember that it is God’s own Spirit that lives in us, we would be much more selective in what we think, what we read, what we watch, what we say, and what we do. Paul acknowledged that even those who follow Christ, as he put it, “sealed by the Holy Spirit” are still susceptible to temptations, evil thoughts, and actions.

In the verses just before the passage that we read today, Paul compared the Christian life to stripping off the dirty clothes of a sinful past and putting on the snowy white robes of Christ’s righteousness. We can see this analogy in another way. At many salad bars and buffets in this country, you see signs that you must use a clean plate each time you get food.

To truly experience God’s power fully, it is imperative that we start each day with a clean plate. If we take our grudges to bed with us, then it is very hard for us to start the next day clean. Paul tells us, through the Ephesians, that we should not let the sun go down on our wrath.

Jesus knew that it was important to forgive. If Jesus had not absolved Peter, Peter would never have become the great and bold leader that he did. If Jesus had not forgiven Paul, how could Paul have ever declared the Gospel, let alone believe it himself?

The words of Paul apply in a much deeper sense. If we allow our anger to control us, be it against another person or the way the world is, then any actions we take will be a result of that anger. Paul pointed out that not all anger was sinful. As Christians, we may respond in controlled anger to injustice and sin but we should not be consumed. Instead, we should find ways to express God’s love for everyone. In his ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968, Bobby Kennedy often quoted the great writer George Bernard Shaw, “You see things; and say `why? ` But I dream of things that never where and say `why not? `” (George Bernard Shaw)

Paul’s words are a call to action as well as a call to a new way of life. This call is even more to the point for us as United Methodists. When we joined the church and when others joined the church, we said that we would offer “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” Service can take many forms, both in the local church and in the community outside. How one serves the church is not the question; the question must be “are you serving the Lord?”

Somehow, we have gotten the idea that for whatever we do, there must be sometime in return. That is why so many of the temptations around us are so tempting. The rewards that are offered seem so great. There are those who have argued that a Christian life is not possible in today’s society; that to gain the rewards in life requires actions and deeds incompatible with Christ’s standard.

But Jesus told us, in the Gospel reading for today, what rewards await us. If we take of the bread of daily living, we will die. But if we take of the bread of heaven, we will have eternal life. Our actions in this world are not for this moment, but for all times. The rewards we seek will come to us; we may not seem them but others will.

Life’s rewards are to be found. The thirsting of your soul cannot be filled with the water you drink during the day but only by the everlasting water offered by Jesus; the longing of your soul cannot be filled by the accomplishments of the date but only by bread of life offered by Jesus. There is a challenge before you this day. How shall you find life’s little rewards?

 


The Life We Lead


Here are my thoughts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost. I am again preaching at Mt. Hope.
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We were “dog-sitting” for a family friend this past week. This is an experience that most people would really enjoy. Daisy, like the two dogs that we have owned, is very susceptible to thunderstorms. Daisy gets very nervous and paces back and forth when the thunderstorms start rolling in; this is whole lot better than having Sammie (our late 90-pound Labrador/boxer mix) jump on us in bed when the thunder started.

People have been forecasting the weather for centuries. In most cases, they would do so by looking at the behavior of the animals around them.

If you think about it, six weeks after February 2nd is March 16th. And the season of spring starts on or about March 21st. So, whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow or not, we will still have six weeks or so of winter after February 2nd.

But there are times when what we see in nature does help us forecast the weather. It was noted that, in many cases, when it was about to rain ants moved to higher ground, cows lay down, pine cones opened up, and sheep’s’ wool uncurled. Of course, not all animal behavior does a good job of weather forecasting.

And as time passed many proverbs were created to help forecast the weather. We all have probably heard “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” This statement, which compares to Matthew 16: 1 – 3 (“When evening comes you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy for the sky is red and overcast.’), does have some validity. As the sun is setting in the west, the light passes through more of the atmosphere than it does when the sun is at its zenith.

Various particles, such as dust, smoke, or pollution, will cause the shorter wavelengths of sun light (the violets and blues) to scatter, leaving the longer wavelengths (the reds and oranges) behind. Hence, our sunsets are redder.

High pressure is associated with good weather. When the weather in the west is fair, high pressure is approaching and the dust particles are lower to the earth, causing the light to appear even redder than normal; hence the phrase, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” When the high pressure has passed, then what follows must be low pressure. And low pressure generally means clouds, rain or storms. So if the sky is red in the morning, that is where the high pressure is and that means that we can expect some sort of “bad” weather.

Of course, for some of us, we don’t need the sky to tell us when there is low pressure approaching; our knees and shoulders tell us. A drop in barometric pressure often affects people with arthritis or even corns and bunions. And as I mentioned earlier, animals are affected by the drop in pressure as well. There are countless other signs of nature that tell us what the weather will be, if we only look at the signs. (1)

Some years ago, when I was living in Missouri, I heard that a green sky meant the presence of a tornado. Now I am red-green color-blind; that means that I cannot distinguish certain shades of red and green. And a green sky looks like a gray sky to me, so that saying didn’t mean a whole lot to me. One day someone said that the sky was really green and I said that it still didn’t mean anything. To prove my point, I opened the door and looked out to the east. There framed in the doorway, fortunately moving away from the house, was this rather nasty looking funnel cloud. I learned that day not to ignore the signs of nature that are around us.

The Old Testament reading for today (2) reminds us what happens when we ignore the signs around us. Nathan comes to David with a story, a story of the rich and powerful taking from the weak and helpless. David is quite rightly outraged by the behavior of the rich and powerful man who would steal from the weak and helpless man. David misses the point that his behavior is the basis for the story and he is the one who must be judged for his behavior in the same manner that David judged the man in the story. David missed the point that the signs around him were signs of his own actions.

The same can be said for those who followed Jesus that afternoon in Galilee. (3)  They are like the wine steward in the wedding at Cana who wondered where the wine came from or the woman at the well who asked where was the living water that Jesus kept telling her about. These people want to know more about Jesus; they need to know more about him. Their question is not limited to temporal time and place; it is a question about ultimate origins.

But it is also a question that hides ulterior motives. And Jesus’ answer is one that would not set well in today’s “seeker-sensitive” churches, where one is not supposed to be tested by the Gospel or the requirements that come from being a follower of Christ. Jesus points out that they are more interested in a “free lunch” than anything else. He tells the crowd that “you came after me because of what happened yesterday (when He feed the multitude). You ate your fill and now you’ve come to see if you can get some more. You really aren’t interested in knowing who I am.”

The people that day were following Jesus but for the wrong reasons. Too many people do the same thing today. Our culture and our society have made an art form out of it. We use Jesus to garner votes for those whose views and goals clash with His clear and simple teachings. We invoke the name of Christ to cover injustice; we invoke the name of Christ to justify immoral policies both at home and on the international stage. (4)

David was also blind to the meaning of the story Nathan told him; his own actions had led to the death of more than one man and he will now have to face the consequence with the loss of his family through public humiliation.

The story about David and the response of the people to Jesus’ miracle reminds us that “we can interpret the appearance of the sky but we cannot interpret the signs of the times.” The signs of these times are especially troubling. People remember Jesus saying “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (5)  But they also seem to forget that we should not panic and we should be aware of false prophets who proclaim the Second Coming with the outcome of war.

Are the signs of war, poverty, homelessness, and injustice signs of the impending Second Coming? Are we to just stand back and let these things happen in hopes that God will welcome us into his house with open arms and joy? Or are we to do as Jesus commended those who stood on the shores of the Galilee and work for the bread?

This is not work in the sense of employment, gaining food for what we do but rather work carrying forth the gift that the bread represents. It is not the bread (with a lower case “b”) that will sustain our physical life that we seek but the Bread (with a capital “B”) that will sustain our spiritual life. It is the gift of this Bread that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Ephesians.

It is the gift that enables us to be apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors, and teachers. It is the gift that enables us to do the work of the ministry in whatever form we can do.

It is the life we lead, it is the work that we do in the name of Christ that we will let others know who we are. What we do, how we live our lives is a reflector of what we believe. It is a continuation of those who came before us.

Early Christians were simply referred to as people of “the Way.” They were associated with a particular pattern of life, one that produced a discernible lifestyle. This lifestyle grew out of their faith and their testimony to that faith. To all who saw them, there was no mistaken them for any other group; Christian belief became identified with a certain behavior. Unlike today, it was one that was recognized by believers and non-believers alike.

They became known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation. Their refusal to kill, practice racial discrimination, or bow down before imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.

It is also important that we recognize that they were a community as well as individuals. The first thing that Jesus did when he began His ministry was form a community. To follow Jesus meant sharing in His life and sharing it with others. From the beginning, it was clear that the Kingdom would manifest itself through a common life. (6)

It was as a community that they all gathered there that last night before Calvary. It was as a community in the Upper Room that they came together to share in that Last Supper. It is as a community that we gather together today to share in the bread and juice this day. And though this service will end with each of us going our own way, we leave knowing that we are a community as others have been in the past. And the life that we live as a part of a community will be the sign to others that this community is open to all.

(1) Adapted from http://www.wxdude.com/proverb.html

(2) 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13

(3) John 6: 24 – 35

(4) Adapted from “Wonder Bread” by Charles Hoffman, The Christian Century, 25 July, 2006

(5) Matthew 24: 6 – 8

(6) Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis (2005)