“How Many Ways?”

Here are my thoughts for the back page of the Fishkill United Methodist Church for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday (Year B)

The author Laurie Beth Jones once wrote that she encountered Jesus meeting her in blue jeans.  And when she asked Him why he was wearing blue jeans, He replied that it was because she was in a similar attire.  Mother Teresa said, essentially, that the people we see are often Jesus in disguise.  Samuel heard God’s voice but did not see Him.

The common image of Jesus is one of someone in a robe surrounded by a shining light.  But often, that shining light blinds us to the reality of Christ’s presence.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in which we recognize the three identities of God.  Just as Jesus was the physical presence of God, the Holy Spirit is the fullness and joy of God.

How do others see the presence of God in this world?  Do you see Jesus calling to you or do you just walk on by?  Do they see Him in you as you walk among the people?


“A New Start”

This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church bulletin on 11 June 2017, “Trinity Sunday (Year A).  This is also Peace and Justice Sunday.

The key point about Genesis, at least for me, is not how God created the world but why He created it.  The book of Genesis, in fact the entire Bible, is about our relationship with God and our relationship with others.

It would be worth considering the words of today’s Gospel reading.  Often called the “Great Commission”, Jesus commands the disciples to go and make disciples of all the people.  But in the Cotton Patch Gospel and the Message, this passage speaks of the disciples teaching people in the ways that they were taught.

We are called to begin anew, to teach others what we have been taught, and to work for a world of peace and justice.  In the words of Senator Cory Booker,

Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people. Don’t tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all her children. Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

In a world where people view confrontation and conflict as the solution, we need a new beginning.  We need to seek opportunities to seek justice in new and peaceful ways.  Today can be that day.

“A Particular Order of Things”

A Mediation for Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014 (Year A)

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 1 – 2: 4, 2 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13, and Matthew 28: 16 – 20.

There is a certain degree of irony in the Scripture readings for this Sunday, at least for me. There is, of course, the Old Testament reading which I look at from one particular point of view and the Gospel reading for today and how I see it as well.

In another project that I am working on I write that believe that there are no three words that create more controversy in society today than the beginning words of Genesis, “In the beginning.” Intuitively, we know that there has to be beginning for everything, but for some reason, perhaps our own human frailties, we have a hard time understanding this.

It is very difficult to envision the creation of this planet and the life that exists, let alone the creation of the universe. In an increasingly complex and technologically oriented world, it seems far easier to accept the notion that God created the world and all that is here in a period of six days.

This is the view that we first learned in Sunday School and never adequately discussed in our science classes growing up. Perhaps it was not discussed because 1) it was too controversial and/or 2) it is a concept not easily demonstrated in the classroom as a demonstration or through experimentation. What we know from the development of the various science curricula in the 1960s was that understanding a rather abstract thought requires an approach that moves the student from a concrete viewpoint to an abstract viewpoint and this is not always easily done.

But we are by nature a curious creature, a creature created in the image of the same God that created this world and this universe. It is our curiosity that seeks to understand this world and this universe. To not ask questions about this world would be to deny our own creation.

Consider what Charles Handy said,

Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.” (The Age of Unreason , 1990)

We can only begin to imagine what the author of Genesis might have been thinking when he or she recorded the words that chronicle the beginning of the universe and this world. I learned this morning of a possible theological reason but I don’t think it affects the scenario that follows.

Perhaps it was the end of the day and families were gathered around the fire. One of the children in the group may have very well asked one of the elders how it was that they had gotten to that moment in time and space. And the elder may very well have responded, “In the beginning” and the lesson began.

It was a story told from the heart as well as the mind and it reflected the knowledge and understanding of the world at that time. It was as much a story of how a group of individuals came to be and was an explanation of their relationship with God as much as with this world. That story, how we came to be a group of individuals in a relationship with God, is still a valid story today, some three thousand years later, and one which needs to be retold time and time again.

But to tell the story as it was told three thousand years ago would 1) effectively deny who we are, 2) deny the relationship that we have with God, 3) ignore all that we have come to know about this planet and this universe, and 4) turn a living story in pages in a dry and dusty old book.

Now, I recall reading or hearing somewhere that the order of creation outlined in the first part of Genesis mirrors the order of creation from the “Big Bang” to life today. And I have to wonder about that. I do not wonder if the elder who told the story some three thousand years ago had some magically insight into what took place,

Rather, it would seem that this elder took some time to think things through and place things in the most logical order. After all, you can’t have living things appearing on the planet before there was plants and things to eat. And you can’t have the plants appear before the land is established. And where the water and the air come from? So the story was laid out in a logical manner in the minds of the story tellers.

If this were the case, as I would think it had to be, then why is it that we don’t want to think today? Why is it that we are quite willing to let others think for us? As I see the world around us today, I see us going away from exploration and questioning and moving towards a state of inflexibility and closed minds.

We are not interested in what is around the corner, we do not care if there is life on other planets, and we are not prepared to answer questions that have not been asked because we do not teach curiosity and inquiry in our schools today. We want our students to memorize things without questioning what it is they are memorizing.

Don’t get me wrong, memorization is a very valid skill but it is 2nd on the list of learning skills with analysis and other higher level thinking skills coming after that. You cannot simply stop at memorization; you must move upward if you expect new things to be created.

Creativity is a natural part of learning but it cannot be learned if it is not put into place. And when someone says to me that we are not to question things, such as the Bible, I have to wonder what their individual goal or thought process might be.

And that leads me to the Gospel reading for today. The passage from Matthew is often called the “Great Commission”, the challenge to bring people to Christ. In some translations, the challenge is to make disciples but The Message translates those words as “train everyone” and “instruct them in all that I have commanded you.” Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospels, says to make students and teach them.

You cannot do that if you beat them over the head with the message, which is how I have seen people interpret the command to make disciples of all the people. If you are not going to show me what it is that you want me to do, if you are going to tell me that this is the way that I have to do then 1) I am not likely to listen and 2) I will not be interested in the outcome.

Were it not for my own curiosity, I might have walked away from the church some fifty years ago and never looked back.

But my story is a little different; I came to Christ on my own and in answer to His call. Not everyone is like that, though they will come on their own. How then do we teach them? How then do we train them?

And this brings forth the 2nd irony of this weekend. I just completed an on-line course in finding one’s spiritual gifts. I learned a couple of things; first, my present gifts are not what I thought they would be and second, I became convinced that knowing one’s spiritual gifts are important and necessary to the direction and mission of the local church.

If you have no idea what your gifts are, it becomes a little hard to do the things that you need to be doing if you don’t know if you can do them. And then we consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians as to how things are done.

So, today we have been charged and challenged to take the Word out into the world. We have been charged and challenged to do so in a way that expresses the love of God for all of his children, children born on this world that He created.

Just as there was only one order to the way the world can be created, there is only one order in which we can bring the world to God, through Christ and with love.

Right With God

This is the message that Gary Gomes of Goshen UMC (NY) gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday, May 25th. The scriptures were for Sunday, May 26th, Trinity Sunday (C).

Romans 5:1-5 (ERV)

We have been made right with God because of our faith. So we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through our faith, Christ has brought us into that blessing of God’s grace that we now enjoy. And we are very happy because of the hope we have of sharing God’s glory. And we are also happy with the troubles we have. Why are we happy with troubles? Because we know that these troubles make us more patient. And this patience is proof that we are strong. And this proof gives us hope. And this hope will never disappoint us. We know this because God has poured out his love to fill our hearts through the Holy Spirit he gave us.

Hey, the short of it is, God loves us. Yeah, there are times when that might seem hard to believe, but what we have to remember is that God never promised it was easy. We mess up, we all mess up. One way or another in life, sooner or later we get it wrong. But faith brings us closer to Christ and Christ made sure we all got a share of God’s grace no matter what. If it seems like you have nothing else, know that you have that. Then, with that, move forward learning from our mistakes and taking each day as it comes. You see when we give thanks to God for our troubles, we are doing the opposite of what everyone else does…complaining to God and blaming Him for their problems.
In complaining we think God allows bad things to happen to us. This is not the case. Our troubles are the result of our earthly existence. Trials and heartaches are a part of the human condition that allow us to appreciate the good things in life. Besides, when it comes to our troubles, these things too, shall pass or as Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest stars of the silent movie era, once said “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles” and I can’t help but think he got this message well.

Now this all comes about because of God’s Grace or Love. Now, this Love of God is True Love. I’ve often wondered what the difference between Love and true Love is but I guess it can mean different things to different people at different times. For instance, right now I am thinking that Love is when someone makes you fresh hot ‘_________________’ on a Saturday morning. True Love is when they actually melt the butter to put on them!

Now knowing that this Grace of God is True Love it seems silly that we of so little faith are always asking ourselves the same question. “Yeah, but what if God gets fed up, what if God decides to stop loving me?”

But this is what Paul is trying to tell us when he says we are happy with the troubles we have. That through our faith we must realize that God still loves us, that these troubles only draw us closer to him. From that we will gain patience with our challenges and hope to overcome them. Maintain that hope and you will overcome disappointment. As was quoted by John Wesley, a man folks in this church should certainly be acquainted with, “Hope does not shame us. We glory in this our hope, because the love of God is held abroad in our hearts.”

Yes, Give Thanks to God! He has blessed us and everything that has been given to us, He has given freely with His love. Yet we take Him for granted because we forget. We forget how great He is and how much of a blessing it is to have such a great God who loves and nurtures us every day despite our shortcomings, a God who never forgets us, but forgets our sins, a God who loves us without reservation even when the world may shun us. He is truly the Light of the World! It is easy for us to give him thanks when things go right for us and we feel the light of God shining on us, but we must remember that he is there even when things seem to be going all wrong. God’s Grace is with you. God loves you. You are Right with God.

Lord, we thank you for this day and for your Love. We know we are not perfect and we know you don’t care. What you care about is that we remember your Love and let it build the patience in us to face our most troublesome days. We thank you for this time together in fellowship, for this opportunity to serve and be served as we were taught to do by Jesus. We ask you to look over all of us gathered here and elsewhere today and guide us on your path to greater Glory. We ask for all of this in the name of our savior Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen

A Leap of Faith

Here are my thoughts for Trinity Sunday, 19 June 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 1 – 2: 4, 2 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13, Matthew 28: 16 – 20.

This is part of a four-week stewardship campaign. My part in the campaign is to present a short witness statement and then give a summary of the current giving patterns in the church (based on a per-week basis). This latter part of the presentation is the same presentation that I gave last spring.

Good morning, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians I greet you with a holy embrace and tell you that all the brothers and sisters here in Newburgh and New York and far as the eye can see say hello in the name of Christ.

As I was preparing this message, I saw the line in Matthew that said that there were those who, even after the reunion with Jesus still held back, afraid to risk themselves totally. I can understand why they may feel that way. Jesus was now gone but they were still here and it was a world in which the political and religious establishment viewed them as a threat.

They were afraid that what the Romans and religious authorities did to Jesus would be done to them. Oh yes, they understood that He had conquered sin and death but He was the Messiah, He was the Christ. We are just mere mortals and death is certainty in our lives. And the Pax Romana, the peace that covered the world, was ensured by military and political repression. Those who sought to change the status quo quite often found themselves as enemies of the state, sentenced to die by crucifixion just as Jesus died.

The paths through history also tell us that the church authorities have never taken kindly to those who have spoken out against traditional church. Even John Wesley was barred from preaching in churches belonging to the Church of England because he spoke out against the failure of the church to respond to the needs of the people. To be a Methodist at its beginning was as dangerous as it was to be a follower in those days following the Resurrection.

And now Jesus is commanding all who were there to go out into the world and instruct everyone they meet in the ways of the Lord. This is not the time to upset the apple cart; this is not the time to do something daring and bold. It is the time to sit quietly, hunker down, and wait for the moment.

It is still true today. One does not mention that one is a Christian or a member of the United Methodist Church. One does not invite friends, neighbors, colleagues, or passing acquaintances to the Vespers in the Garden that start this coming Friday at 7 pm or our summer services. It is a quick and easy way to make enemies and we don’t link up with our enemies on Facebook, just our friends.

Thanks to a number of people who have no idea what is written in the Bible, the average person today has a distorted view of God, religion, and Christianity. You would be surprised how many people today recoil at the notion that I can be a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church and also hold a Ph. D. in Science Education. For many people, to be a scientist, to seek answers that go beyond simple statements of fact, means that one cannot be a Christian. Believe me, one of the most intellectually challenging things that I do is read Sunday’s lectionary readings and think about how to make those words relevant to the 21st century. Let me be so bold as to say that if you are not willing to spend some time thinking about what the Bible is about and you let others dictate the message of the Bible, then you are not completing Jesus’ commandment at the end of the reading from Matthew for today.

But how can any of us do what we have been asked to do, go out into the world and instruct everyone whom we meet in the ways of the Lord? We don’t have the skills; we don’t have the ability; we don’t even have the time. If we were to end the reading from Matthew there, it would be difficult to do anything, let alone that which is expected of us.

But Jesus also told us that He would be with us as we ventured out into the world. I can speak from my travels across this land, both as a lay speaker and otherwise, that when you open your heart, your mind, and your soul to the power of the Holy Spirit, great things happen.

About twenty-five years ago, my mother participated in one of the Volunteer in Mission trips sponsored by the United Methodist Church. My mother had no business being on that mission. She was a grandmother in her late 60s. She didn’t have the skills necessary to do the carpentry work on the school building part of the team would do; she didn’t have the medical training that the nurses who went to provide basic medical care had. She knew very little about dentistry, other than the dentist on the trip, Solomon Christian, wasn’t taking much in the way of pain killers or other such drugs. She didn’t have any of those skills but she did know one thing.

She knew that the children for whom Solomon would provide the basic dental work would be hurting. And so my momma went as the DH, the designated hugger. She hugged each child with the love of a mother for her own children or a grandmother for her grandchildren. Her hugs and encouragement eased the pain of the necessary dental work.

I cannot speak to why my momma went to St. Vincent other than to say she took a leap of faith. She knew that she would be needed and so she went. And it remained for the rest of her life, one of the high points.

And if Virginia Mitchell can undertake such a mission, what is to stop each of you? Last week was Pentecost and it marked the beginning of the church. But it wasn’t an organization meeting as this Saturday’s church conference will be; it was the inclusion of the Holy Spirit to empower the people to go out into the world.

It does take a leap of faith to see that you can do great things. It is not what others think that you can do; it is what you think that you can do. Perhaps you will not go on a mission trip; perhaps you will only sing in the choir or teach Sunday School. Maybe it will be just saying hello to the stranger who walks by the church and inviting them in. And yes, perhaps it means giving from your income as much as you give from your heart and soul. I know that these are hard times for us all, and I am not going to be like other Southern-sounding preachers with their syrup-sweet accents who promise you great things will come if you but send them your money.

But there comes a moment in time when you are staring at the abyss and you have to get to the other side. You cannot do so if you don’t have an abiding trust in the Lord. The Israelites wandered through the wilderness for forty years and when the time came to cross the River Jordan, they balked. The spies they sent in lied about what they found and the crossing was delayed. They had seen all the signs that God had provided and yet, when the time came, they were not willing to make the leap of faith necessary to cross the River Jordan. Each person comes to that point on the River Jordan sometime in their life; each church, no matter what denomination, also comes to that point. Today, I will show you a plan that asks you to make that simple leap of faith.

“What Is Truth?”

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Trinity Sunday, 6 June 4. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 8: 1 – 4, 22 – 31; Romans 5: 1 – 5; and John 16: 12 – 15.


It is highly ironic that on this day when the United Methodist Church celebrates "Peace with Justice" Sunday, the world is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. For my family, at least, there is also the irony that but for an ulcer, the landings themselves would be more than just a major note in history.

In 1943, my grandfather, a Colonel in the Army, was on leave and in the States for my father’s graduation from Cornell. As he prepared to return to the island of Aruba in the Caribbean where he was commander of the Army base, the Army decided that he had completed his overseas tour and he needed another assignment. This new assignment ultimately was to be commander of an Infantry Regiment that would be part of the Normandy invasion forces. During this period, his ulcers flared up and, because he could not eat GI food, he was retired for physical disability in the line of duty in March 1944. But for that, I suppose today’s celebrations would have a far different meaning for my family and myself.

But we have to be careful about the celebrations that take place. We must make sure that these celebrations are for and about those who served and sacrificed so that others could be free today. If we are not careful, these celebrations could easily, if they have not done so already, turn into a celebration of war.

And that would be a dishonor to all who, civilian and military, sacrificed their lives in World War II and all previous wars and to what freedom is all about. War is about ignorance. People go to war because they fear what they do not know. People go to war because they are not willing to learn about others and find out how they think or act or do things. People go to war because their leaders tell them lies and distort the truth, making it seem as though they must fight for what is theirs. Wars are fought because people are convinced that they know the correct way to do things and no one else does.

We need to be reminded that the United Methodist Church has a long heritage of opposition to war going back to John Wesley in the 18th century. "War", John Wesley said, "is a ‘monster’ that cannot be reconciled to ‘any degree of reason or common sense’ — a monster bringing miseries to the warriors and to all those in the warriors’ path. Wesley also said that, "war is too often caused by national leaders, who in disregard to their people, fail to find more creative ways of settling disagreements."

There are those who say that war is inevitable, a result of two competing visions or forces. One historian, Victor David Hanson, has concluded that war is the natural state of mankind. (Newsweek, 31 March 2003)  There are those who say that some wars are justified, that sometimes one must go to war in order for good to triumph over evil. But no war can ever be justified; for wars cause destruction and death, wars bring suffering.

No matter how hard we try, the only inevitable thing in war is that someone is going to die. And one death by unnatural causes is one death too many. The ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once said, "Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children."

We may find ourselves in war, simply because there are no other alternatives. The forces that bring war may be so great that combat, death, and destruction must come. But such a response must always be the last one, the one that we are forced to make when there are no alternatives.

We must work to insure that this choice is never forced upon us. That means that we must work to eliminate those factors of life that cause war: racism, poverty, greed, corruption, must be eliminated. We must work as strongly for peace as we seemingly do for war.

The problem is that we do not truly understand what peace is. We think of peace in terms of not being at war. We lived through the period of time known as the "Cold War" thinking we were at peace. Even the B-52 bombers that stood as sentinels against the Soviet Union wore the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, "Peace is our profession", on their noses. But this peace was only the product of an understanding that if the other side were to attack, we would attack in kind, leaving the world a desolate and dead planet. This theory that our forces would counter other forces was known as mutually assured destruction. The acronym for this theory, MAD, was very much appropriate.

But peace is not the absence of war; it is the establishment of conditions that prevent wars from ever happening. We speak of the peace dividend whenever a war is ended; it is the transformation of a war economy to the production of goods used in peacetime. But weapons are still manufactured and sold; if we cannot buy them for our own country, we find some country that will. And the causes of war, racism, poverty, greed, corruption all remain to fester and inflame those who are its victims.

It comes as a surprise to people but the motto of the Central Intelligence Agency is a quote from the Bible, specifically John 8: 32, "and you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." These words of Jesus actually refer to freedom from the bondage of sin through obedience to Christ but are quite apropos for today. Freedom is ultimately found by the knowledge of truth, both within us and within our groups. In knowing what the truth is, we are able to make choices and forced to rely on others to tell us how to think and act.

Wisdom, the subject of the reading from the Book of Proverbs for today, is our ability to gain the truth, to find it and use it. In Chapter 7 of the Proverbs the attention was on the fool and the traps used to catch him or her. In Chapter 8, there is a shift to praising wisdom. Wisdom is not limited to a select few but rather, as the writer of Proverbs suggests, open to all who seek it. Wisdom cannot be hidden through privacy or deception, available to only a select few. The words of wisdom can be trusted and the offer of grace found through wisdom is often beneficial. The words of truth given through wisdom contrast with the lies of wickedness; wisdom will ultimately deliver on the promises made and not simply tease the reader or listener with offers of better things to come. The value of wisdom goes beyond the simple value of gold or silver; it is impossible to pay for wisdom with gems or other desirable things. Wisdom is the ultimate in priceless objects, inestimable in value. In the Old Testament, wisdom acted as God’s dynamic word; in the New Testament, Jesus is the personification of wisdom and the Word of God.

Understanding what we are required to do, to really know what the truth is does require a great deal of wisdom. It requires that we act and think for ourselves, in other words, we search for the truth. There are those who would naturally not want us to think for ourselves, to act without their guidance. In the very act of acting independently, of thinking for one’s self, we begin the great act of dissent.

And dissent is the one thing many organizations, especially churches, do not want. Dissent is stifled simply because it runs counter to the wishes of the leaders or power brokers. I find it interesting that there are those who fear the liberal voice within a church, so much so that they are willing to finance such opposition. The New York Times two weeks ago reported about a foundation that is privately funding many conservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations. While they did not directly support or finance the "divorce decree" presented at last month’s General Conference in Pittsburgh, they did put the text on the proposal and the author’s speech in support of the proposal on their website.  ("Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy", Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, May 22, 2004.)  And one report from the same General Conference indicates that those who supported the more conservative positions that were presented but failed are looking to prevent more liberal delegates from attending the next General Conference in 2008. (From Connections, June 2004, Barbara Wendland, publisher and editor)

The stifling of dissent, be it at large meetings such as General Conference or at small meetings such as the local church, is one reason why church membership is declining. People will simply not come to churches where they find that their voice will note be heard. The Gospel tells us that Jesus will look for the single sheep, yet people encounter situations where their thoughts and words are pushed to the back, simply because it is a different thought or they say something different. Why should someone want to come to such a place? I will argue that one reason is that they see in churches today autocratic and rigid bodies, not willing to accept new or fresher ideas. In too many churches today, dissent or the presentation of an alternative viewpoint is simply not welcome. It is almost as if the majority view of the congregation is the only idea that will be accepted.

In some cases, this must be true. If the congregation votes to install a covered walkway from the parking lot to the church entrance or to buy a new organ to replace the venerable but worn-out pump organ first purchased in 1865, then that is the will of the church and there can be no dissent. And I state this knowing full well that our own literature, the flyer that we give to visitors, states just that situation.

Members of this congregation wanted to purchase a bell but the trustees objected, stating that the building costs must be met first. But this congregation voted to purchase a bell, collected the money and installed the bell over the opposition of the trustees. It is also noted that the trustees refused to ring the bell. But we ring the bell to mark the start of the services each Sunday and we were reminded at our meeting with Dennis Winkleblack two weeks ago that the trustees serve at the will of the church council and the congregation.

I will however disagree with the idea that the majority of the congregation can determine the meaning of the Gospel. The Gospel message is the one part of the church that cannot be determined by a majority vote; it must be determined by one’s own conscience. This has happened in churches past and I know that many preachers who have gone against the will of the majority when it comes to preaching the Gospel have run into trouble. Those who saw in the Gospel that we are all the same in God’s eyes (remembering Paul’s words that there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free) would clearly run into opposition from those who felt that the Bible gave credence to the separation of races. But it is the people who hold to the belief of inequality that must change their views, not the preacher. For the Gospel makes no distinction between individuals in their beliefs, no matter how hard one may try. A preacher must present the message, as the Holy Spirit guides him or her, not by the wishes of the congregation. Did not Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading that it would be the Holy Spirit who would come and guide us in our understanding?

The truth is that being a Christian requires us to be a dissenter. It requires that we look at the Gospel message and apply it to the settings around us, not let the settings around us determine what the Gospel message will be. It means that you cannot stand back and let injustice triumph over justice; you cannot stand back and let evil triumph over good and righteousness.

Many times you will be in the minority, only because the majority are people who take no action and do not want to be bothered. But always remember what happened to the early disciples in Acts.

When they heard [that the apostles had disobeyed the high priest’s order], they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people … said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you proposed to do to these men. … If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. In that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (Acts 5: 33 – 39)

What I fear will happen, if it hasn’t happened already, is that people who want to dissent or make their voices heard will stop coming to church and seek God elsewhere. This means that churches will be filled with those who seek softness and comfort over salvation and power over servanthood. And should I fear this outcome? Remember that when Jesus came, He often dissented with the majority view. He sought to bring the disenfranchised into the church, he sought to give voice to the poor and the oppressed; yet today, those same views are quickly pushed to the back or even outside the church. To paraphrase a common phrase of the conservative evangelicals, "Where would Jesus be in today’s church?"

Our faith comes not from reading of the words of the Bible; it comes from our belief in Christ as our Savior. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, we are saved and at peace with God. Yes, this peace with God often brings suffering here on earth. Paul was very clear in his letter today that we are going to suffer for our faith and for what we do. But the rewards that we receive will ultimately outweigh what we must endure here on earth.

We are asked to be God’s representatives through Christ here on earth and it is often an uneasy task. We live in a world that lives by Exodus 21: 23 -25, "that if any harm follows [whatever action was taken against you], you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21: 23 – 25)  It is a world in which for every action taken against us, we seek an equal but opposite reaction.

But we forget that Jesus said to us, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away." (Matthew 5: 38 – 42)

It is tough being a Christian because we are asked to do what we do not want to do. And when we try and fail we often seek other ways, fearing that Christ is not who He said He was, is and will always be.

But the truth is that there is one God, worshipped by many and worshipped in many different ways. The truth is there is one Son, sent by the one God to die on the cross and be resurrected so that we would gain our freedom from sin and death. The truth is that there is a Holy Spirit that enables us to be the representatives of Christ on earth. Through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we find the strength, the power, and wisdom to meet the demands of this world and seek a better, more peaceful world.

Our prayer this day should be like the one given by the Reverend Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ gave at a General Board of Church and Society event during the recent General Conference.

"May God bless you with discomfort…

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with discomfort…

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears…

To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness. . .

To believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done AMEN (A Franciscan Benediction, printed in Connections, Number 140, June 2004, Barbara Wendland, publisher and editor)

“Wisdom and Truth”

Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for Trinity Sunday, 10 June 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 8: 1 – 4, 22 – 31; Romans 5: 1 – 5; and John 16: 12 – 15.


One of the more fascinating tidbits of information that I have picked up in my life is that the motto of the Central Intelligence Agency is John 8: 32, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8: 32)

In picking this statement as its motto, the CIA said that we need to know as much information about other governments and what their intentions are so that we can take the proper counter-measures and remain free. It is very much like Thomas Jefferson’s statement "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." (Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Col. Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816)

Our whole life is about finding truth in the things around us. From early on, we are constantly asking questions which speak to our desire to know things about our world and our lives, "Why is the grass green? Why is the sky blue?" As we get older, we seek the answers to deeper questions, "Why am I here? What meaning is there to my life? How can there be a God if there is so much hatred and injustice in this world?"

It is against that backdrop of seeking knowledge and truth that the writer of Proverbs reminds us about our own human nature. Proverbs is about the frailty of the human character. A quick scan of this book gives us a convincing array of descriptions of human nature and behavior: foolishness, wickedness, adulterous behavior, evildoers, stupidity, those that scoff at others, crooked and other illegal actions, and laziness. Don’t look for praise of the human species in Proverbs.

The wisdom in Proverbs comes from the fact that the writer understood that there is delicately intertwined labyrinth of good and ill within the human soul. In the selection for today, Wisdom assumes human ignorance but then proceeds to show us that the human heart, mind and soul are capable of great and delightful things.

Wisdom has it right: Human behavior as a race is potentially delightful, creative, compassionate, humble, pure, good-humored, just, honorable, and good. But such things are not given, not an automatic profile of humanness but rather something that must be learned, heard, studied, heeded, practiced, and lived.

This plays out well when we think about our own lives. Our own desire to seek a better live, to find the good in all around us, to understand the world in which we live is what drives our desire to seek an inner peace in our lives. According to Jack Miles, the author of God: The Biography, American culture has always encouraged tolerance and experimentalism.

Like explorers standing at the mouth of some vast, complex unknown river yearning to find its source, or astronomers searching the heavens for clues to invisible transmissions, we cannot help but be aware that the world around us is still mysterious, complex, and unfathomable. And if the world in which we live is mysterious, how much more can God be?

The doctrine of the Trinity can itself be seen as the product of a restless theological mind. How can there be one God with three different revelations? Like mathematicians seeking to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem (the one where he wrote in the margin of a book that he had found an elegant solution to a simple algebraic expression but then never wrote down the solution), church thinkers have struggled and wrestled with this concept for over four hundred years.

It is a difficult concept for us to understand because there has been on other way to express what God means to us than by saying, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." And if you thought that the controversies between members of the church were new, you need only to go back to the days of the early church, to 451 when the Nicene Creed was first written. This creed was the result of the controversy and established the Orthodox Christian affirmation of a triune God, God in three persons, or three manifestations, three expressions: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Even before that time, Paul was trying to explain the mystery of the Trinity. He attempted to do that in the selection from Romans that we read today. In 2 Corinthians 13: 14, Paul expressed it as "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." (2 Corinthians 13: 14)

Our own personal experience with God can be adequately stated only in this Trinitarian terminology. We can’t explain the Trinity, but we can affirm, with Christians across the ages, that God is our Father in heaven; our Savior, the Son of God who died for our sins; and our Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living Lord who dwells within us and interacts with our own spirits.

There is God beyond us, God transcendent, God whose name was regarded as so sacred by the ancient Hebrews that they would not speak it and substituted an Aramaic word whenever they encountered the sacred name in the Scriptures. This God beyond us we refer to as Father, Creator of heaven and earth.

Until we know God as Father, we experience a deep sense of restlessness in our lives. The uneasiness is there because we have alienated ourselves from the One who created us in his image to have fellowship with Him. Just as rebellious sons and daughters destroy their relationships with their parents, so also do we break our relationship with God through sin. We have no peace until we know God as Father again. The word "peace" is derived from a verb that means to bind together again that which has been separated.

There is God among us, the Word became flesh, the very revelation of God in human form, Jesus Christ the Son, who redeemed us from sin. It is through our Lord Jesus Christ that we have peace with God, because it is by him that we gain access to, as Paul wrote in Romans, "the grace in which we stand." (Romans 5: 2) It is our experience with God as the Savior-Son that is the beginning point in our knowledge of the Trinity.

When Paul gave his Trinitarian benediction (2 Corinthians 13: 14), he began with "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." This was because of his own personal experience. He did not personally know the God he thought he was serving as Saul the Pharisee until the day on the road to Damascus. But when he met Jesus and trusted Him as his Savior, he found peace with Father-God.

And finally, there is God within us as individual Christians and within the community that is the church: God the Holy Spirit, who sustains us personally and corporately. None of us have seen the risen Christ, but we have experienced the presence of God within us and within the church.

The immediate presence of God in our lives is through the Holy Spirit. In actuality, the Spirit is the main player in the whole matter of our personal experience of and with God. It is the Spirit that teaches us, illumines our minds, and authenticates to us the reality of God as Savior and as Father.

It is the Spirit that delivers to our lives the salvation experience from beginning to end. He enacts the new birth; he gives us assurance that we are God’s children and works through our tribulations to teach us patience, and through our patience to transform our character, and through the experience of proven character to enhance our hope in the glory of God. Meanwhile, it is through the Spirit that our lives are infused with God’s love.

Proverbs reminds us that there is a certain folly to life when we seek to find the answers to our questions outside God. It is only by coming to God that the peace we seek in our lives is accomplished. And it is only through Jesus Christ that we can come to God. And our lives come to a full circle when we allow the Holy Spirit to be a part of our lives, empowering us to experience the presence of God within us and within the church.

Within and Without

Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday, Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 8: 1 – 4, 22 – 31; Romans 5: 1 – 5; and John 16: 12 – 15. 

I was asked the other day to address the spiritual and mental aspect of what I believe. And I cannot think of a better Sunday in which to do this. As it turns out, this was a very difficult piece to envision, let alone write. It should be viewed as the beginning of the discussion and not just a commentary on the way things are.

It isn’t that it is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are brought together. Nor is it that this is also Peace with Justice Sunday in the United Methodist Church.

It is a combination of things that make it appropriate and necessary to speak about what we are thinking when we speak of religion, Jesus Christ, or Christianity.

But to do so, you have to first ask yourself what do you believe? You may say that you don’t need to believe in Christ to do good or to seek justice or peace. And that’s fine with me as long as you codify what it is you believe. There are those who say that they have no need for Christ or God in their lives. But that begs the question of how do you know what good is or what evil is? Where do you get your sense of justice?

What drives a person to do good, to seek justice, or to work for peace? Is this something within our genes or do we have something that cannot be quantified, something that we might call the soul?

When we began to evolve as conscious, sentient beings we began to seek reasons for what occurred in our lives. From this came our concept of gods; there were gods for the rain and the sun, gods to bring health and gods that would bring death, and gods for fertility, good crops, and just about everything imaginable. We attribute much of what we observed in our natural word as the work of gods. And as we began to discover the physical reasons of things, the need for such gods began to decline. But this development never reached into the area of right and wrong, good and evil. And our ancestors began to understand that there might be something that couldn’t be quantified using these ideas. And from that, comes the idea of a Supreme Being.

Now, this is a very difficult idea for many to even formulate in their minds. One of the leading arguments against God is that He cannot be quantified, that His existence cannot be proved. But then again, neither can good or evil. For many people, this inability to identify God or explain the nature of good and evil in physical terms is the reason that they feel they have no reason for the church today.

The church today must deal with this, if for no other reason that if it cannot justify the existence of God, of the nature of good and evil, then it has no business being open. But by the same token, this attempt at justification is as much a personal search as it is a corporate search.

At some point, each person must look at what they believe and ask where those beliefs came from. “Oh, this is what I have been taught” might be one response and that’s a good reply. But where is the justification that what you are taught is correct? Where is the internal mechanism that tells you to accept that what you are taught is the right response? If we had the time and if this were the place, we might begin to look at Carl Jung and the collective unconscious belief in a god/supreme being.

Now, I know that this is perhaps far too simplistic an approach for this topic. There are people who have no concept of good and evil even though they have been taught right from wrong. We call these individuals sociopaths or psychopaths. Sometime people never hear the message because it doesn’t exist in the subconscious or unconscious mind. That is why psychology exists.

What makes people bad and do evil things even when they have been taught that the things they do are not acceptable to society? What makes a good Christian do a horrible heinous act against another human being?

That is why so many people have a difficult time with accepting God as a presence in their lives. They see the acts of violence and the acts of inhumanity and wonder how God can allow that to happen. They see a mother or father abuse their children just as they were abused as children and wonder when the cycle of violence will stop. And quite frankly, I don’t have those answers. I don’t think anyone does.

You could say that it was genetic, that we are born with the ideas of good and evil incorporated in our genes (and I know that some people believe this). But if that were the case, then what we do and what we say for the entire span of lifetime is decided for us before we even begin to live our lives and nothing we can do can change the outcome. If that is the case, then there is no need for Christ in our lives and we need not have a God or gods.

But if this idea of good and bad is ethereal in nature, if it exists as an idea that must be taught and reinforced repeatedly, then we have a choice to accept the idea or not.

Sometimes there will be a conflict between what you are taught and what you see in this world. You learned in high school that “all men were created equal” but you go out into a world where they are not created equal. And again, one problem that the church has today is that many preachers and denominations make religious pronouncements that run counter to what transpires in the world. They also teach you their beliefs and that their explanation is the only answer.

So what do you do? If you have no faith system to fall back on, you are in trouble. Similarly, if there is a conflict between what you have been taught and what you think, you are in trouble.

The problem is that many faith systems don’t allow for such conflict. You either believe as you were taught or you don’t; and if you don’t, you will lead a condemned life.

But such ideas are man-made and someone else’s interpretation of what was written and translated over the years of the church. The burden of the proof falls on each individual, not someone else. You have to be open to hear the ideas, you have to be ready for the insight that comes from a study and an appreciation of the ideas.

In the Gospel reading for today, John records Jesus as speaking of the time when the Spirit will come and bring the Truth of the message. I have always said and I believe that the acceptance of the Holy Spirit, our own private Pentecost, is a mind-changing thing, the beginning of a new consciousness.

Now, the cynic or the critic will say that these words in the Gospel are someone’s interpretation. And they may be. But the words that Jesus speaks in John are part of a heritage found in the reading from Proverbs today.

The words of Proverbs are part of the wisdom literature in the Bible. The author of Proverbs speaks of wisdom being in existence long before the real world began and being a part of the creation process. Again, this speaks to me of the new consciousness that comes when one first accepts Jesus Christ and then allows the Holy Spirit to transform your life.

It is not an easy thing to do. We are so caught up in the language and thoughts of today that we cannot accept this notion of change. And many times, people do not accept the change (“this is the way it has always been and this is the way it will always be”).

Paul speaks of justification through faith. But it is faith that is born in us through the Holy Spirit. It is a difficult thing to accept because it takes time and, in a culture where we want instant faith, it is not something easily accepted today.

That’s why I asked the question about what you believe? Where inside you does a sense of good and evil lie? Where inside you is what you believe?

As the writer of Proverbs pointed out, it was there inside you from the day you began. And it lies there within you waiting to be released. But there needs to be something that will release and awaken that nature of your life. It will come from hearing the words of Christ. For some, this is a new message, different from what they have heard in the past. For others, it is a message that has been heard from childhood but heard today with new hears and a new desire to hear.

The challenge today is two-fold. First, we must, no matter upon what basis we believe, seek justice and work for justice. But we must also take the life within us and let the Holy Spirit empowered that life and make the life on the outside that others will see and will know why you seek peace and work for justice.

In The Beginning

This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures are Isaiah 6: 1 – 8, Romans 8: 12 – 17, and John 3: 1- 17.

I am tentatively scheduled to be at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church (Gaylordsville, CT) July 5, 12, and 19.  The services there start at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.


“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Henry II spoke these words, or words to that effect, in expressing his dissatisfaction with Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Beckett was royal chancellor to King Henry II. In 1162, following the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appointed him to be the new archbishop. Henry must have thought that, with their friendship, he could more easily control the church and get the church to more easily support the crown’s policies. But Beckett did not go along with this plan. The man who was a layperson one day, an ordained priest the next, and the most powerful clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the third day took his job very seriously.

Beckett would not allow the king and crown to engulf the church. Henry’s plan to gain authority that properly belonged to the church failed because Beckett would not allow such an uncontrolled usurpation of power.

Those who knew Beckett before his appointment found it amazing that he, Beckett, would come even close to being a man of God. But he grew into the job and the position. He understood what he had been called by God to do and refused to do what Henry wished that he would do. In exasperation, Henry made a passing remark that he wished someone would dispose of this headache.

Now, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that Henry wanted his friend killed or whether he spoke his words out of frustration and/or anger. Nor can it be said that Thomas, who clearly sought power through his friendship with Henry, wanted the power of the church for himself.

But four young knights, William de Tracy, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret, all who hoped to rise in favor with Henry, heard the words as a command. So they rode off to Canterbury and assassinated Beckett on the high altar of the cathedral. The four knights were disgraced and Henry found himself seeking repentance for his thoughts and actions. (See http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm; also Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

The theme of this Sunday is “Peace with Justice.” It comes some two weeks after four young men from this area were arrested for conspiring to bomb two synagogues in New York City in the misguided notion that they would be rewarded by Allah. And it comes one week after a physician was killed in the narthex of his church by someone who was angered that he, the doctor, was involved in abortions. It is neither the time nor the place to discuss whether what Dr. William Tiller did was right or wrong.

But it is interesting to note how many individuals, using the banner of God and the church, have literally endorsed Dr. Tiller’s murder. The message of far-right secular and sectarian groups and individuals is often filled with hatred and suggestions of violence. It should not be surprising that some individuals, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, would read those words and feel that it was acceptable, proper, and appropriate to take the actions that were planned for New York City and carried out in Wichita, Kansas.

I agree with the editorial staff of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette wrote

. . .“the shouts of those who care only about ending abortion drown out all others. The shouting makes it impossible for people to work toward reducing the need for abortion and improving life for everyone.” (“Where is the outrage?”)

When I first began lay speaking, I used a reference to Patrick Henry’s famous speech (“give me liberty or give me death”) in one of my sermons. A colleague of mine, after seeing an early draft of that sermon, commented that I was one of the most conservative Methodists that he knew. This came as a shock to me because, first of all, I never have considered myself a conservative Methodist, and second, I knew several other Methodist preachers who were far more conservative that me. He also said that what I had written could serve as a justification for actions such as the bombing of an abortion clinic. Since I did not feel that way then (nor do I feel that way today) I immediately went back and rewrote that portion of the sermon.

But it still remains that there are those today who would and do use such words as a call for action. But if there is to be Peace and Justice in this world today, it cannot come with the methods that are used to take away peace and deny justice to the people of the world. And that is what the church today must face.

The words of too many people, portraying themselves as spokespersons of the church, are words of hate, anger, and exclusion that would take away peace, justice, and freedom. But the words of the church, from its very beginning, have been words of peace, justice, and freedom.

We recall the words in Deuteronomy that spoke of the care that each individual was to show for their neighbor,

When you happen on someone who’s in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that God, your God, is giving you, don’t look the other way pretending you don’t see him. Don’t keep a tight grip on your purse. No. Look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs. Don’t count the cost. Don’t listen to that selfish voice saying, “It’s almost the seventh year, the year of All-Debts-Are-Canceled,” and turn aside and leave your needy neighbor in the lurch, refusing to help him. He’ll call God’s attention to you and your blatant sin. (The Message – Deuteronomy 15: 7 – 8)

We recall the words of Acts in which the people gathered together as a community, sharing all that they had for the benefit of all. There are also other writings outside the Bible that tell us that people gathered together in the name of Christ and lived in what we would today call communes. It may have been that these early Christians gathered together for protection as much as for worship. The people of that early church were persecuted for their refusal to fit into the social system of that day, which included publically acknowledging the emperor as god.

But somewhere along the timeline of history, perhaps after Constantine made Christianity acceptable, the church moved away from its beginnings and began to evolve into what it is today. The church today is more a reflection of what mankind wants the church to be, not what God intended.

I have written about what I see as the transition of the church from what it once was (though I perhaps didn’t always know that) into what it has become. But it is clear to me today that the church today is more a reflection of today’s society than it should be. I am not alone in this thought.

Gretta Vosper, pastor and author of the book “With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe”, suggests the church of today is no longer appropriate for today’s society. While I may disagree with some of her ideas, I do agree with her question, “Can the church slough off the encrustations of two millennia of ecclesial doctrine and theology in order to address the world’s most urgent needs?”

She continues with the idea that the core message of Christianity carries its own authority. It does not need a doctrine to validate it nor an external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right. A church which focuses on the core message need not fear the disciplines of science, history, archeology, psychology or literature; it will only be enhanced by such disciplines. It will also be a church open and enhanced by critical thinking for such thinking will enhance the message.

The problem is that this core message is too often expressed in terms of today’s society. And the result is that many people have turned the message into their version of the truth and they condemn those who refuse to accept their version. It isn’t just the far right of the spectrum; it is those who speak in terms of “this is the way that we have always done it”, even when they themselves don’t understand what it is that they are doing.

It is a concern that has been a part of the United Methodist Church almost from its very beginning. John Wesley once said

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. (“Thoughts upon Methodism” – 1786)

The title of this sermon, “In The Beginning”, came about because I am concerned about the church and its role in society. The church, from its very beginning has been concerned with peace and justice. But if there is to be peace with justice today, then we must remember how this church began.

Perhaps it is appropriate that today is also Trinity Sunday. I saw a statement the other day that basically stated that if you cannot imagine the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as One, then you would have difficulty with the message of Christianity. And if your view of Christianity is tied to the present worldview, where what the church, its mission and its words are determined by what others say, then it will be very difficult to accept the Triune God.

This was the problem that Nicodemus had. He was locked into a worldview that could not imagine being reborn; he could not imagine the changing power of the Holy Spirit as Paul described it to the Romans. But if your heart is open to Jesus Christ, then your mind can be open to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on his throne, much like the painting that you all see each Sunday (“What I See”). I am sure that the words that we heard this morning in our first reading (Isaiah 6: 1 – 8) adequately express the fear that filled Isaiah’s heart and mind. John Wesley also had a vision of the world; he saw a world in which the church was called to its original vision but from which it had turned away in favor of societal acceptance.

But I don’t think that we were ever supposed to be seen in terms of societal acceptance. From almost the very beginning of our history, we have been told to do what is right, not necessarily what is socially acceptable.

“Don’t pass on malicious gossip. “Don’t link up with a wicked person and give corrupt testimony. Don’t go along with the crowd in doing evil and don’t fudge your testimony in a case just to please the crowd. And just because someone is poor, don’t show favoritism in a dispute. (The Message – Exodus 23: 2)

There are two visions of the church today. One is that of an antiquated and dying institution that ignores the world around it in favor of days long past. It is a church in which things are done for reasons long forgotten.

The other is a vision of the church as it was two thousand years ago, of a community that opened its hearts and minds to all those who sought peace, of a community that cared for everyone regardless of background. It is a vision that says that when we gather together at the communion table, we gather in fellowship and remembrance as those who began the church did, remembering the words of Christ to the disciples and the others gathered together in the Upper Room but celebrating the fellowship of the presence.

It is the vision of the church that Wesley had some two hundred and fifty years ago when he saw a church more interested in its own well-being and self-preservation than it was in the well-being of the people. Wesley believed that God had raised the people called Methodists to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. The institutions and practices of the Methodist movement were designed to enable Methodists to participate in God’s mission in the world. (From John Wesley and the Emerging Church by Hal Knight – http://www.umerging.org/uploads/media/John_Wesley_and_the_Emerging_Church.pdf)

And today, we are the messengers for this vision. As we come to the table this morning, we are called to bring forth the vision, not only of John Wesley, but of those who gathered two thousand years ago in fellowship and remembrance. We have the chance today to continue what began two thousand years ago, a chance to begin again the mission of the church. Just as God asked Isaiah who will carry forth the vision, so too does God ask us. And just as Isaiah answered, so must we answer the same. This can be the end of the church but it can also be the beginning. How shall you respond?

How Will It Get Done?

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for Trinity Sunday, 15 June 2003.  The Scriptures are Isaiah 6: 1 – 8, Romans 8: 12 – 17, and John 3: 1- 17.  This was also Father’s Day.


In the early part of 1775, the Continental Congress passed a series of resolutions calling for the thirteen colonies to defy the provisions of the Stamp Act recently enacted by the British government. As part of those resolutions, the Continental Congress called upon each of the thirteen colonies to support these resolutions. So it was that on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose before the delegates of the Virginia Convention meeting in St. John’s Church in Richmond, VA to give perhaps the most impassioned speech of the pre-Revolutionary period.

And though this speech, with its ringing closing statement of “Give me liberty or give me death”, was the clarion call for war with Britain, it was at its heart a cry for justice. Like so many of those who called for action, Patrick Henry could not see how life under British rule and its colonial policies of taxation without representation could be considered fair under any circumstances. And like many, neither could he see a resolution of the problems through negotiation. If the colonists were to achieve the freedom they sought in this country, actions were necessary, not words of accommodation and one-sided compromise.

But more importantly, Patrick Henry understood that peace could not be achieved at the expense of liberty. For as he spoke, it is said that he had visions of his wife, Sarah Shelton, in his mind. As he spoke of the coming and inevitable war with Britain, he knew of the war his wife was fighting with the demons of mental illness.

Society’s cure for mental illness in those times was to simply lock up the mentally ill and treat them as a threat to society. To have peace with society, Patrick Henry could have put his wife in a mental asylum but he chose to keep her at home. Two rooms in the basement of their home were set aside for her so that in the rare moments of lucidity, she could be with the family and the children. But though it was her home, it was still a prison. Sadly, Sarah died just a few months before Patrick Henry rose that day in March of 1775.

On this day, when we celebrate peace with justice, it is important to know that you cannot have one without the other. When someone uses that phrase so often as the call for freedom, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” you will know what drove Patrick Henry to seek freedom for this country.

Some twelve years ago, I first used this reference to Patrick Henry. A colleague of mine, after seeing a draft of the sermon, commented that I was one of the more conservative Methodists that he knew. This came as quite a shock to me since I knew several preachers who were more conservative than I and I have never thought of myself as conservative. He also said that what I wrote was a justification for actions, such as the bombing of abortion clinics, that he would have approved but which I then and still today find reprehensible.

Patrick Henry’s call for action in the defense of liberty rings well in many right-wing political circles and is found on many right wing based web sites. One site, in fact, is a fundamentalist church whose pastor used the speech in a sermon a year ago as a call for Christians to take action against the moral decay and decline of civilization. But the actions that others take today and justify with the words of Patrick Henry spoke are no better than the actions they oppose.

Peace with Justice is not just a slogan but rather an affirmation of what this country is about. But it cannot be found in ways that take away freedom. You can never have freedom if members of society are oppressed and equal opportunities are not given to all.

Utilizing violence, especially in today’s world, as a means to solve violence will never work. It is easy to use the call for action and war as Patrick Henry did. Perhaps war was inevitable in 1775 but that was because neither side was willing to take the steps to successfully resolve the conflict.

We still live in a world where hatred and violence are almost commonplace, expression of love and compassion are most clearly needed. We live in a world which almost daily invokes Exodus 21: 23 – 24, “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” So it is that we need to be reminded that Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5: 38 – 39)

Jesus continued by commanding us to love our enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 43 – 44) Jesus was responding to the saying that you could love your neighbor but should hate your enemy. This phrase, “hate your enemies”, can be found nowhere in the Old Testament but it was then and still is today an accepted part of society. Jesus spoke of the love that we were to give to all people, not just those we like. God does not lower the standards of righteousness simply to accommodate our sinfulness; rather, he gives us the power to keep His righteous standard.

The causes of war are poverty, oppression and hatred. Until such time as those causes are eliminated there can never be peace. Some will chastise me for what I say today. But then there were those who took exception to what Patrick Henry said. But if we are to be true to the Gospel message, if we are to show that God’s love is real, then we must speak out.

That I believe is a critical role of the church, to speak out against injustice, to speak out against oppression, to speak out against hatred. How many times did Jesus challenge society to do the right thing, how many times did Jesus do that which society did not want done?

Being a part of society, being the conscience of society is what the church is all about. It is what should have been the case from the beginning of the church but has not been. But it has to be more than just words. There must be action behind the words. When John Wesley began his ministry, others had cried out from the pulpit with concerns for the lower classes and poor of England. But it was done with the assumption that the only way for those in need to be saved was by emulating the upper classes.

Wesley believed that it was not necessary for the working and lower classes to be like the upper classes. Salvation was not a matter of a better life style; it was and should be the acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s own Savior. So the role of the church was to help them find that path. And if that path was blocked because society put up obstacles, then the church should be tearing down the obstacles.

Like Nicodemus, people come to the church seeking answers. And the answers he received that evening years ago caused him great concern. For he was being asked to reconsider how he saw his life.

The acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior is a life changing experience. It is the experience that Nicodemus was troubled about; it is an experience that causes much trouble even today. It is not so much that we must, as Nicodemus asked, return to our mother’s womb but rather we must change the way in which we live.

This causes us, just as it caused Nicodemus, trouble. For we cannot see a way to change our lives. Unfortunately, in this day and age, too many people claim to be born again but still live the same life as before. And because they do not change their lives, their thinking is limited and out-dated.

If we look at the verses in John that come right after today’s reading, we see that acceptance of Christ as the Savior brings a new light and a new understanding to the ways of the world. But if we do not believe, if we do not accept then we continue in the old ways, ways that lead to failure.

With Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we lead a new life. Our actions and decisions are based upon what our new life is about. This is, what I feel, Paul was saying to the Romans. It is the spirit of God that guides us in our life after coming to Christ. So it should be the Spirit of God that people see in our actions.

In accepting Christ, we are given a new life and a new way of seeing things. We must see what we do in terms of what Jesus did and why He did it. We must see life in the same terms as Jesus did. The Gospel reminds us today that it was love that provided the reason for God’s actions; it will be love that provides the reason for our actions. If there is not love in what we do, then we are as guilty as those who claim to be born again but judge and condemn those who are not.

Just as Patrick Henry called for action in 1775, so too is God calling us today, asking us as he did Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?”

We now that we should answer God’s call. We know that only by our efforts will the Gospel be realized. But we are reluctant to answer because we do not how it will be done. But just as Nicodemus was perplexed and reluctant to accept the idea of being born again, so too are we. We know that a life in Christ will yield the results we seek; but we are reluctant to give away what we think is our freedom.

But the freedom that we think we have is simply enslavement to the power of sin and death. The true freedom we seek will come through Christ and all we have to do is hear the words of Paul again to know that is true.

We know that, with the Holy Spirit in our lives, we have a new direction and a new sense of how things can be done. The question of the day is “How will it get done? How will we, as individuals in this world, change the world around us?” We know that the answer lies in our acceptance of Christ.