“A New Life”

Here are is the message I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B), 20 February 2000.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 43: 18 – 25, 2 Corinthians 1: 18 – 22, and Mark 2: 1 – 12.

As I was preparing my message for next Sunday (7th Sunday after the Epiphany (A), 23 February 2014, at Sloatsburg UMC) I discovered that I had not posted this message nor did I have some sort of summary for this particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar.  I think that part of the reason for this is that I haven’t preached on this particular Sunday that often (in the fifteen years that I have kept records there have only been six 7th Sundays after the Epiphany and only 2 of them have been Year A in the cycle).

But I have rectified that and have identified all the posts that are related to this particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar.


Every Sunday, as I drive towards Walker Valley, I am always impressed amazed by the mountain as it rises from the plain of the Hudson Valley. It is hard to explain but, to me, there is a certain majesty and beauty in that setting. I suppose that part of that comes from the fact that my own background includes the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and the Appalachian hill country of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. With that in mind, I have a sense of the historical and geographical barriers that the mountains represented to the early settlers of this country.

Exploration of the country in its early days was pretty well limited to the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains simply because there was no easy way to get over the mountains. And going around them was not as easy as it would seem, especially if you were in the middle section of the country where the mountains were the western borders. And, if I am not mistaken, there were also legal restrictions about who could go into the territories to settle.

But it was possible to get over, or rather through, the mountains at places called Cumberland Gap. This passage through the Appalachian Mountains in the southeastern most part of Kentucky from Virginia is as equally impressive as the mountains that it is a part of. For it is perhaps the widest valley and provides a relatively easy passage through the mountains rather than having to go over them. It was through this gap that Daniel Boone first took settlers from North Carolina and Virginia into the Kentucky heartland to settle the interior of the new territories, thus beginning the movement west and the settlement of the entire country. And, as settlers moved into these new areas, Methodist ministers closely followed them.

Why was it that people moved from the relative safety of the East Coast of the newly founded United States for the unknown parts of the territories west of the Appalachian Mountains? What did they hope to find? For the most part, I would think that it was to find a new life or to escape an old one. New territories bring new hope and new chances, especially when you seem stifled with your present life. Through time, people sought ways to find a better life. In the 1800’s, it was gold in California. Today, it is the stock market and the possibility of getting in on the ground floor of some new and exciting technology stock. We see the people and read about the stories of those who have made their fortune in the stock market and we wonder why we can’t do it as well.

Of course, the problem is that such solutions are not as easy as one might think. For those moving from the relative safety of Virginia and North Carolina into the relative unknown parts of Kentucky, they had to take everything with them for there was nothing waiting for them when they got to their final destination. And you couldn’t get on a wagon train from Kansas City to California unless you had everything necessary for the long, arduous journey. Even today, for those that think that day trading is a glamorous and exciting way to make money, they quickly change their mind when they find that a substantial cash reserve is needed before they can begin buying and selling. And, when you read the fine print for all the ads offering stock purchases with low commissions, check the fine print. They too require a substantial cash reserve to get the good bargains.

I think that the problem today is not that we seek a new life through monetary gains. I am not, as it might seem, against making money. Like Wesley, I would like to earn all that I could. But it should be done in a manner that does not exploit others and, having earned all you could, save all you can, and more importantly, give all you can. I think the problem is that many people do so because they are lacking something more central.

The paralytic in the Gospel reading for today came to Jesus to be healed. This paralytic wanted a new life and he had faith that Jesus would be able to give him one. The faith of his friends that this could occur was so powerful that they took the roof off the building in which Jesus was so that they could lower their friend down.

I find this passage of particular interest this week. Just as four people helped a friend come to Jesus, so too can each one of us, not just a select few, reach out to those we know who have not been to church in a while and make the offer to come and visit and perhaps stay awhile.

As the Gospel reading says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”” Of course, this did not set well with the scribes and others present who did not understand who Jesus was. That is why Jesus offered the option of saying “Your sins are forgiven” or “Stand up and take your mat and walk.” As the paralytic got up and walk, to begin a new life, those who saw it were amazed.

It is relatively easy to start a new life. All you have to do is decide that is what you want to do. But, for all those who ventured into the uncharted wilderness, there were just as many that chose to stay at home, deciding that it was too risky.

There will always be a substantial risk to starting something new, being willing to risk all that you have for something unknown. When faced with the prospect of something new, there is always reluctance on our part to begin. Often times, as we try to move forward, we hold on to the past.

But as we heard in the Old Testament reading for today, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” God, through Isaiah, told the people of Israel that even though they had consistently forgotten to do what they were supposed to do, He had not. And even when they burdened Him with their sins, He forgave them and chose not to remember them.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God’s promises are always a yes. God’s concern for this world was such that He sent Jesus to be our Savior, in the words of Isaiah, the new thing that was to be done.

God tells us today, just as He told Isaiah, that he blots out our transgressions and does not remember our sins. So why should we? There is an old hymn that speaks of surrendering all (#354), of giving everything to Jesus. To us, it sounds strange to surrender all, yet come away with a new life.

The paralytic came to Jesus with the aid of four friends and walked away with a new life. The offer is presented to you and, through you, to others as well. If the burden in your heart is great and the journey seems too long, remember that a new life awaits when you let Jesus be your Savior.

“Top Posts for 2012”

Here are the top posts for 2012. Since I really didn’t post much new stuff this year, the list looks a lot like last year’s list (“Top Posts for 2011”).

I am not sure what 2013 will look like from a blogging standpoint. We are continuing the Saturday morning devotionals at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen and if I give the devotional, then it will be posted. (Get in touch with me if you are in the Newburgh area and want to present the devotional some Saturday).

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling – July 26, 2008 (#1 in 2011)
  2. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (#3)
  3. What is a part per million? – February 19, 2010 (#8)
  4. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – March 13, 2008 (#2)
  5. Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair? – September 15, 2009 (#5)
  6. A Collection of Sayings – January 17, 2008 (#4)
  7. John Wooden – A Review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of Mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yager– October 9, 2009 (#7)
  8. What Does Stewardship Mean to Me – November 6, 2005 (#13)
  9. Hearing God Call – January 7, 2009 (#12)
  10. A Brief History of Atomic Theory – April 27, 2011 (#9)
  11. The Dilemma of Modern Christianity – April 18, 2009 (#6)
  12. The Twelve Disciples – Were they management potential? – October 3, 2008 (#14)
  13. A Child’s Book Report on the entire Bible” – November 6, 2005 (not ranked)
  14. What Does It Mean To Be Called? – August 30, 2008 (#16)
  15. The Difference Between Football in the North and South – October 8, 2006 (#10)
  16. A Cake Without Baking Powder” – October 8, 2006 (unranked)
  17. Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?” – June 28, 2008, (unranked)
  18. The Difference Between Republicans and Democrats” – November 27, 2008, (unranked)
  19. Describe Your Pastor” – March 11, 2008, (unranked)
  20. A Scout is Reverent – February 2, 2010 (#19)

My all-time list is

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling (#1 in 2011)
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? (#2)
  3. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (#4)
  4. A Collection of Sayings (#3)
  5. John Wooden – A Review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of Mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yager– October 9, 2009 (#5)

“Priorities For Life”

This was the message I gave at Walker Valley UMC for Christ the King Sunday, 25 November 2001 (C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

Whether we know or it, this Sunday marks the end of the year. Of course, I am not talking about the end of the calendar year but rather the liturgical calendar. The church calendar is marked into four seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and the Sundays after Pentecost (sometimes known as Kingdom Tide). This Sunday is called the Christ the King Sunday to mark the end of Kingdom Tide and the beginning of Advent.

It is one of those quiet Sundays on the calendar since we really don’t do anything big or spectacular with it. Perhaps we should. After twenty-five weeks in the Kingdom Tide, perhaps we should do something to celebrate. But then again, our celebration of Christ’s birth begins next week and to celebrate this week might be shade bit too much.

But we should stop and reflect what Christ’s presence in our lives means, for if nothing, that is what this Sunday is really about. What does Christ’s presence mean in our lives and what are we going to do because of it?

Jeremiah warns the people of Israel to beware of those who would not do what is required of them. What kind of shepherds would neglect their own flocks? At the time that Jeremiah spoke, the people of Israel were going through bad times. The government of Israel had essentially forgotten what its mandate was; it had forgotten what it meant to lead the people.

But God had not forgotten His covenant with the people; He had not forgotten his people. At a time when hope was needed, God would send them a leader, a shepherd who would take care of His people.

This passage from Jeremiah points out that God would finish what He started. For a people who needed love, God would see that they had it. If it were forgiveness that they desired, it would be given. If it were power for living that was needed, they would discover it.

God would keep the promise of the covenant he made with them. God would right the wrong, defeat the power of evil, and bring peace and joy and life to them all. The people of Israel would have a kingdom where all would be equal and would treat each other with love and justice.

In a time of darkness and fear, God would save them. No longer would they have to fear other nations. God would keep them secure. No one or no nation could ever destroy them. The protection of God would never be defeated. They would be safe in God’s arms.

The people of Israel sought a king would could make them safe and secure. We know now that the King that Jeremiah spoke of, the shepherd who would watch over his flocks and protect them from danger and trouble was the Christ. In Christ all the prophecies could be seen. Christ would deal wisely with the people, even when the earthly kings did not. He came to meet our needs, to provide lave and forgiveness and grace for our lives. Chris was, is and will always be sufficient for our needs.

Jeremiah pointed out that Christ would execute justice and righteousness. He opposed injustice, mistreatment of others, sinful living. He would call on the people to love one another, to meet the needs of the less fortunate, and to live as disciples of His Kingdom.

He provided salvation for all. If we put our lives in the hands of Christ, nothing can pry us loose from them. Christ will hold us tightly, keeping us secure through eternity.

Today we are faced with a decision. Which king shall we serve? There are plenty of earthly kings who promise much. Sometimes they carry names like materialism, pleasure, success or fame. All promise much, all promise to bring safety and security; but, in the end, none of these deliver what they promise. Yet Christ delivers what He promised.

Paul pointed out to the Colossians what it is about Jesus that truly makes Him the Lord of all people. Paul pointed out first that only Jesus had the power to rescue people from the darkness of sin and bring them to the Kingdom of light.

Second, in our desire to find security and safety, we seek that which we can know. There have been many attempts to describe God, to know what God is like. As our Savior, Jesus came to this world to give us a glimpse of God. God is revealed to us through the heart and mind of Christ Jesus. Through his acts of compassion, his merciful forgiveness, his sufficient grace, and his sensibility to human need, Christ reveals a portrait of God different from the one of a powerful agent of wrath, far removed from this world. Jesus showed us God as a loving Father who cared for us all.

Finally Paul reminds us that Jesus has authority over both the church and the individual. No matter what we may think or feel about the power of an individual, no person is the sole captain of their own soul; all are called to live their lives under the control and authority of Christ Jesus.

Paul concluded his letter by reminding us that Jesus came to reconcile us with God. As our Savior, Christ is involved in bringing everyone into a right relationship with God. He is the device by which we can communicate and move into fellowship with God.

To me, one of the most dramatic moments of Christ’s live here on earth was that moment depicted in the Gospel reading for today. For it showed what Christ was all about; why he came to this world and lived among us. Two criminals were hung by Jesus to die the same long, slow, painful death of crucifixion that Jesus would die. One of the two thieves still saw the world in earthly terms, seeing the power of the Messiah in selfish terms, only in terms of what it could for an individual.

As Paul pointed out, we are not the captains of our soul. To see power in terms of what it can do for us limits what that power can do. And the thief who mocked Jesus along with the soldiers could only see power in terms of what it would do for the individual. That thief was like a lot of people today who see power in terms of what it can do for the one.

But the other thief understood that he was on the cross for what he had done; he was on the cross because he sought to security through his own devices. And he realized that it was all of naught; that nothing he could do would save him from the punishment he received. But he also understood, even in the throes of pain and death that Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation was his for the asking.

As we begin the celebration of Advent we are asked to think about what Jesus means to each of us. We are asked to think about the role of Jesus in our lives. What are our priorities? How shall we live our lives?

The message for today is one of hope and promise. At a time when things look darkest, when we feel that there is no hope, we are asked to consider what our priorities are going to be. If we put aside all that this world around asks us to do, if we understand that our celebration of Advent is a celebration of the hope and promise embodied in Christ, then we begin to understand what our priorities should and must be.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the Sunday when we are reminded that the one priority in life is to follow Christ, to open our hearts to Him who would be the servant King. Today we are asked to evaluate our priorities in life and choose those which enable us to be faithful servants of the King.

“How Will They Know?”

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley (NY) United Methodist Church for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), August 22, 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.

Well, let’s face it. The year is almost over and soon we will have to deal with the dreaded “Y2K” problem. If you haven’t heard of this problem, then you have been where there are no computers, no radio, no TV, and no cable.

To understand the nature of this problem, you have to understand a little bit about computer history. Today, we speak of megabytes and Pentium chips. A typical floppy disk of today, which is no longer floppy, contains more data than many of the first computers. Now because the operating memory for these early computers was so limited, programmers had to find ways of saving space. One way was to simply use the last two digits of the year. It was assumed that latter programmers would solve this problem.

But many early programmers failed to accurately document where they stuck the code and how they set it up. And as other problems came up, the solution of correcting the date storage problem kept getting pushed back.

So now it is 1999 and people have suddenly remembered that when January 1, 2000 comes around, many computer clocks will think it is January 1, 1900. And since no one can remember how the code was written or where the code was put in the memory and no one bothered to write down anything, many companies are faced with major problems related to the time and date.

Now, I don’t think that this computer problem is going to cause as many problems as every one fears. There are going to be glitches, to be sure, but nothing will shut down and most computers will not suddenly turn back to the end of the 19th century. But it does show us the importance of knowing from whence things come.

From the Egyptian point of view, the Israelites had become a problem. But it was a problem only because the Pharaoh had forgotten and apparently no Egyptian bothered to record why the Israelites where there in the first place.

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.”

We know that the Israelites were welcomed to Egypt because of what Joseph had done. But like the origin of the Y2K problem, we find that people tend to forget why things were done. And because the Israelites had become so numerous, the Egyptians, without knowing why they were there in the first place, began to fear them and take the repressive measures that would ultimately lead to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

When they left Egypt, the Israelites were determined not to forget what God had done for them. That is why each year at Passover, they say

For ever after, in every generation, all of us must think of ourselves as having gone forth from Egypt. For we read in the Torah: “In that day thou shalt teach thy child, saying: All this is because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One, blessed be God, redeemed; us, too, the living, God redeemed together with them, as we learn from the verse in the Torah: “And God brought us out from thence, so that God might bring us home, and give us the land which God pledged to our ancestors.” (From “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” by Marcus J. Borg. He is quoting Maurice Samuel’s translation of Haggadah of Passover. (New York: Hebrew Publishing, 1942), p. 27. Borg added the italics and the translation was slightly modified for the sake of gender-inclusive language.)

But over the years, as Israel suffered and rejoiced, these words may have lost their meaning to many of them. So when Jesus asked his disciples who the people said he was, the answers given suggest that while the Israelites knew the words, they did not understand the meaning of what they were saying and hearing every year. They forgot what God had done and what He had promised we would do. In essence, they had lost their relationship with God.

Simply hearing the words or telling the stories does not guarantee that you will believe the stories. Telling the stories about Jesus is important (Hymn #156) but sooner or later, if we are not careful, the stories will become words simply told from generation to generation.

The Greek and Latin roots for the word “believe” mean “to give one’s heart to.” Believing, therefore, does not consist of simply giving one’s mental assent to something but much more, of giving of one’s self.

At some point in time, we must take action, as Peter did and exclaim when Jesus asked,

But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Believing in Jesus means more than just believing a doctrine. If we give our heart to Jesus, we find that our life will change.

As Paul notes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This transforming changes the way we live and the way we do things. If Christ is in our life, then the words we speak must be turned into actions.

Peter was given the keys to the kingdom and so are we when we acknowledge that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God. As Paul told the Romans, we have been blessed with many gifts, according to the grace given us. These gifts may be in the manner of teaching, or preaching, or confessing, or prophesying. But Paul also warned the Romans about taking themselves too seriously, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measures of faith God has given you.”

Paul knew that being a disciple of Christ was more than simply being a follower. Our relationship with Christ should be a personal one, but our journey with Christ, the result of the transforming of the spirit is not done alone. It is a journey that puts us in a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus.

To Paul, being in fellowship with Christ creates a community of believers celebrating and remembering Christ. Like any community, the members of Christ’s community are unique in their own skills, each having one skill given to them by the grace of God. And for the community to survive, each member must use his or her own talents in conjunction with the others, just as one’s own body is many different parts all working together.

So, while we remember the past and tell the stories about Jesus and what he did, we look to the future. And against that backdrop, we ask how will the future generations come to know Christ? They will hear the stories but will they know the meaning of the words. The answer to that question is very clear. They will know Christ because they see Christ today in the eyes and hearts of those around them in the community of fellowship with Christ.

But that is not always an easy thing to see. But it is not an impossible task either. All we have to do today is answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” If we accept Christ as our Savior, if we allow him to come into our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, other people will know.

How will they know? They will know because the story of Jesus is not just a story from the past, the origin of which is lost in the passage of time but because Christ is alive and well in the community of fellowship. As hymn #310 tell us, they will know because Christ is alive in our hearts.

Faith of Our Fathers

This was my Father’s Day message for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 June 2002, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Romans 6: 1 – 11, and Matthew 10: 24 – 39.

It would be highly appropriate for me, on this Father’s Day, to speak in glowing and favorable words about my own father. But to do so would gloss over his relationship with me and with his family. Though he was a man of vision and many of his ideas had a great impact, he was like many fathers we have heard about, aloof and distant from his family. Immensely proud of his children’s accomplishments, he often failed to let us know of his pride in us.

Still, at the end of his life, I knew how proud he was that I had received my doctorate and how proud he was of my then fledging career in the ministry of the United Methodist Church. I also knew that, despite his initial objections to this choice, he had come to understand that it was a choice made in my heart. It was a choice that he accepted and endorsed. For he knew that the path in ministry that I was beginning to walk was a path shared by others in our extended family, the Schüessler family from whom my grandmother and his mother came. He was proud of that choice and was working to make my path a little bit easier.

I also knew that at the end of his life, he had come back to that same foundation and faith in which he was raised.

That is the way it is for each of us here today. We walk a path of our own choosing, guided by our wisdom and made in our heart. But it is a path made easier by our fathers and their fathers before them, our mothers and their mothers before them, by all those in our family, both close and extended who have traveled this path before us.

The challenge for us then is to move forward, to expand the path so that those that follow us have the same and perhaps greater opportunities than we did. But I see in today’s society people unwilling to move forward. I see in today’s society people who feel that the good days are the ones behind us; that there is no hope for the future and what we have today is the best that it will ever be. We have become a society unwilling or unable to go beyond the bend in the path before us, fearful of what might lie there.

We are a society that has accepted the here and now as the norm; we don’t look to the future; we are afraid to take risks. If our own political founding fathers had been unwilling to move into the unknown, then we might still be a colony of Great Britain today. But there were those in the small towns and villages of this country who saw the road to Independence for what it was, the only path to take, and so we moved forward. Beginning with the visionary and radical document we know as the “Declaration of Independence”, this nation has moved into the future. The question is whether we can continue to do so.

I am not sure that the spirit that led us to cheer when we heard that all men were created equal still exists today. I am not sure that we are a nation willing to put the values expressed then into practice today. We are not interested in long-term solutions any more. We want an answer now, no matter what might happen tomorrow. We react immediately and without thought. I will not minimize what happened on September 11, 2001. It was an act that defies belief and can only be explained in seemingly irrational terms.

But have our responses since that day solved the problems that caused the attack. Have the forces of evil that feed on ignorance, hatred, and injustice been removed from today’s society? Or, have each of our own violent responses been met with more violence? We must seek justice in this world but it must be within the boundaries of what we believe. We have repeatedly told the world that we are a Christian nation, so we hold to the Gospel message presented in the New Testament. Yet, we have stated that we are a people of the New Testament; as such, our responses seem to be more a rephrasing of the old Mosaic Law of an eye for an eye. The fact is that when violence is answered by more violence, there will never be peace.

The roots of hatred and violence run deep in this world. And in a world where self-interests seemingly come first, such roots are not easily removed. But if we would simply stop and think for a few moments about how we should respond, we could create a peace-based, non-aggressive response that would meet our goal while not portraying us as weak or inept. This is difficult to do, especially in a time when society demands violent responses and victory at all costs and belittles all those who do seek alternatives. But, in light of the Gospel before us today, we should not be surprised. For the Gospel message for today tells us that society is not often open to the liberating thoughts alternative solutions might possess.

Jesus is passing through the town and area of Gerasa. There He encounters a man possessed by seven demons. Because of this possession, this man has been driven from his home and forced to live among the tombs of the town cemetery. Society’s actions and condemnation have declared him dead and unfit to be in the real world.

He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and his Savior. He begs to be healed and saved from that which is tormenting him. Not only does Jesus heal him, he elevates him to a status above those how who have scorned and condemned him. But what do the townspeople do?

Instead of rejoicing in this man’s healing and literal return from the dead, they are angry with Jesus. As we read in the Gospel for today, Jesus placed the demons that had tormented the man in a herd of pigs nearby, causing the pigs to jump over a cliff and fall to their death in the sea. The people were angry with Jesus for doing this.

It is very interesting that this was their response. For as devout Jews, the townspeople could not eat pork. So these pigs were not for local consumption. Rather, the people raised the pigs to feed the Roman soldiers garrisoned nearby. The anger comes from the fact that Jesus, in saving one person, has disrupted the ways of society; Jesus has disrupted the status quo.

Yet, the status quo served to keep the people of the area enslaved. Jesus comes as a liberator, offering an alternative. But He was rejected and cast aside by the very people that He came to free because His solution was not acceptable to them. Those caught up in the ways of the secular world are often not willing to accept liberation, especially if it interferes with the easy life of the status quo.

But you cannot liberate an enslaved people using the methods that enslaved them in the first place. There must be alternatives. Jesus offered an alternative then and today. Are we willing to look at the alternatives or shall we continue with the status quo?

John Wesley saw people trapped by poverty and societal indifference. English society in his day believed, as some in today’s society still believe, that poverty was a direct result of a sinful life. If you were poor, it was because you were a sinner. If you were rich and prosperous, then God must have smiled on you and granted the blessings of life. It did not matter if your riches came from the enslavement, abuse, and oppression of others; if you were rich, God was on your side.

Historians tell us that the England of John Wesley’s time was ripe for the same violent and bloody revolution that swept through France some fifty years later. They also tell us that one of the reasons why England did not have such a bloody revolution was because of the work of John Wesley and the early Methodists.

The early Methodists fought to improve the conditions that condoned child abuse and sent children as young as twelve into England’s mines and factories. The fought against the drug and alcohol abuse prevalent in society and, which for some was the only escape available. The early Methodists tried to change a society that found it convenient to throw people in jail for owing others money and keeping them in jail until the debt was paid. People in proverty were made to feel ashamed because they were poor; people were made to feel that God had forgotten them.

Instead of repression and humiliation, instead of making it impossible to better ones life, the early Methodists show people that they had not been forgotten, that God loved them as much as anyone else. More importantly, the poor and lower classes were given hope, the same hope promised in the Gospel message. And slowly but surely, the early Methodists changed the minds that looked inward first and caused to look around them and see what the world really was.

Do you remember the story of John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” and a number of other powerful Methodist hymns? His life changed when he saw that the source of his wealth was the enslavement of others. Faced with the irony that by selling people into slavery was the cause of his own spiritual enslavement, he chose to walk away and seek a new life. Through his hymns and ministry, he helped bring about the quiet revolution in England.

This is the power of the Gospel; that is the power of faith in Christ. Jesus gave new life to a man condemned by society. John Wesley gave hope to people forgotten by society.

It is the same for us. Through Christ, we have been given the opportunity of life without slavery to sin and death. Salvation is ours through the power of the Gospel. And like the man in the Gospel message today, we are challenged by Jesus to take the Gospel message into the world, bringing others to Jesus.

But it requires that we change. It requires that we have that life-changing experience that the man in tombs underwent. It requires a change in one’s thinking and direction of life, as it was for John Newton.

We cannot simply rearrange the present in hopes of making the future better. The Galatians were one of the first Christian churches but like some many others, they were reluctant to change their thinking. They still saw themselves in terms of the old ways of life, using the law as a way of exclusion. Paul reminded them it was their faith that united them in a radical equality. Paul told them to cast away the old identities of Greek and Jew, slave and free and see themselves in the light of Christ and their faith in Christ.

You will tell me that this is all well and good but it will not work in today’s world. To live and preach the Gospel message will only bring ridicule and embarrassment. You will tell me that you cannot take on the world’s problems by yourself. What would you have done if faced with thousands of refugees who will die if you do not take action?

At the last P. A. P. A. (Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association) it was resolved that we would remember Aristides de Sousa Mendes this week. You may not have ever heard of this gentleman and he probably would have liked it this way. He was the General Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, France during the spring of 1940.

At that time, the Nazi blitzkrieg had breached the French armies’ defenses and refugees of different nationalities, including thousands of Jews, were coming to Bordeaux in hopes of avoiding death by obtaining a transit visa to Portugal and from there to ports in South America. The Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was a Fascist and supported Adolf Hitler personally even though Portugal remained neutral throughout World War II. Premier Salazar gave orders to all Portuguese diplomats forbidding them from extending visas to refuges and to Jews who had been expelled from their country of origin.

In spite of this, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of transit permits to refugees in Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Hendaye (a town on the Spanish border with France). It is believed that because of his actions 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, were saved from death in the Third Reich’s death camps.

On June 16, 1940, Sousa Mendes faced the crowd and said,

“I cannot allow you to die. Most of you are Jewish and our Constitution established that neither religion nor political beliefs can be used as an excuse to reject the staying in Portugal.”

“I will give a visa to whoever needs it, either he/she can pay for it or not. I will act according to what my Christian conscience tells me to do,” he used to say.

For his defiance of his country’s leader he was expelled from the Portuguese Foreign Service and lost all benefits. The utterance of his name was prohibited for decades and he lived the rest of his life as an outcast, homeless and in poverty until his death in 1954. In 1987, President Mario Soares posthumously awarded him the Order of Liberty and publicly asked his relatives for forgiveness for the injustices that had taken place.

In a letter sent to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (another individual whose conscience dictated actions that were counter to public sentiment and who paid the ultimate price for his action), Francisco Sousa Mendes, the consul’s grandson, wrote “Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a diplomat. As such, he knew that he was a public official, somebody who should serve the people and, in no way could he take advantage of his position for personal benefit. But, even more important, more than a public official, my grandfather was loyal to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, particularly the one that prescribes us to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

When faced with the choice of doing what was right in the eyes of his people and what was right in the eyes of the Lord, Aristides de Sousa Mendes choose to follow the Lord, no matter what the cost it would be to him.

The prophet Elijah could relate to what happened to Sousa Mendes. Elijah took on the establishment, challenging the prophets of Baal and in direct confrontation with Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. In showing these prophets to be fools and charlatans, Elijah embarrassed and enraged Jezebel, to the point that she put a bounty on his life.

In the wilderness, Elijah is convinced that he is alone, that there is no one who believes in God as he does. He believes that he will die in the wilderness, alone as the last of God’s witnesses. He is also convinced that God has forgotten him. Yet, God showed that he was neither forgotten nor alone. God showed Elijah that there are others and that there will always be others who believe in God and act in the same manner as Elijah.

You may see yourself alone in the battle but look around you. There are others whose presence today tells you their paths have crossed yours and the faith of their fathers is still present, as is yours.

Today, we are reminded that our fathers, like their fathers before them, worked to make our paths a little easier to tread. We are reminded that Jesus came to liberate and save us from sin and death. We are reminded, as our fathers before us and their fathers before them that the Gospel message is to be taken from this place and into the world. We are reminded again, in the words of the old Methodist hymn that the faith of our fathers lives on today.


“This Is the Time”

Here is the message that I gave for the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 9, 2000, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.

The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the covenant that God will make with his people. The main difference between this covenant and the others before it are that God initiates it. In doing so, God is assuring its effectiveness. This is also the prophecy that predicts Jesus’ birth and ministry.

And as Jesus pointed out to his disciples in the Gospel reading for today, the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. The time has come to set the covenant into action.

Like all the covenants of the Old Testament, this is an agreement between two parties, In this case the two parties are God and us. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading for today, if the covenant is to be fulfilled, we must follow Him. In verses 25 and 26, Jesus points out that

“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father, will honor. (John 12: 25 – 26)

When I got home Wednesday, Ann told me that I had received a note from my mother telling me of the death of someone. At first, I could not identify who the person was and initially thought it was one of the older members of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. But when I read the article that my mom sent, I realized that it was a classmate of mine from high school who had died rather unexpectedly.

I do not grieve for the loss of this friend of mine from thirty years ago. I know that she led a good life and it was a life in Christ so I do not worry. But death has a way of making us think about our lives and about what Jesus asks us to do in giving up our life.

Only very late do we learn the price of the risk of believing, because only very late do we face up to the idea of death.

This is what is difficult: believing truly means dying. Dying to everything: to our reasoning, to our plans, to our past, to our childhood dreams, to our attachment to earth, and sometimes even to the sunlight, as at the moment of our physical death.

That is why faith is so difficult. It is so difficult to hear from Jesus a cry of anguish for us and our difficulties in believing, “Oh, if only you could believe!”

Because not even he can take our place in the leap of Faith; it is up to us. It is like dying! It is up to us, and no one is able to take our place.

This mature act of faith is terribly, uniquely personal. Its risk involves us down to the core. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

The phrase that Jesus used, “loves his life”, describes those who serve only themselves. Shortly after he spoke these words, he gave his disciples the opportunity to identify this problem in their own lives. This was when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples prior to the Feast of the Passover. The phrase “hates his life” involves serving Christ. Each believer must establish his or her own priorities. We cannot give ourselves fully to a life on earth and yet be committed to the life that is to come. To follow Christ is to follow Jesus example of self-sacrifice when He, the teacher, washed the feet of His disciples. Jesus set the example of “hating” His life in this world so that He could accomplish eternal purposes.

The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual awareness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for the heart because He needs the lives. It is by lives that the world will be redeemed, by lives that beat in concordance with God, by deed that outbeat the finite charity of the human heart.

Man’s power of action is less vague than his power of intention. And an action has intrinsic meaning; its value to the world is independent of what it means to the person performing it. The act of giving food to a helpless child is meaningful regardless of whether or not the moral intention is present. God asks for the heart, and we must spell our answer in terms of deeds.

It would be a device of conceit, if not presumption, to insist that purity of heart is the exclusive test of piety. Perfect purity is something we rarely know how to obtain or how to retain. No one can claim to have purged all the dross even from his finest desire. The self is finite, but selfishness is infinite. God asks for the heart, but the heart is oppressed with uncertainty in its own twilight. God asks for faith, and the heart is not sure of its own faith. It is good that there is a dawn of decision for the sight of the heart; deeds to objectify faith, definite forms to verify belief.

The heart is often a lonely voice in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

The integrity of life is not exclusively a thing of the heart; it implies more than consciousness of the moral law. The innermost chamber must be guarded at the uttermost outposts. Religion is not the same as spiritualism; what man does in his concrete, physical existence is directly relevant to the divine. Spirituality is the goal, not the way of man. In this world music is played on physical instruments, and to the Jew the mitsvot are the instruments on which the holy is carried out. If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God..” (From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joseph Heschel)

That is why we find it so hard to give up everything and to follow Jesus. But if we are to be successful in the coming years, if we are to be His servants, then we need to understand this point. Too often, evangelism is presented as simply bringing people to Christ. Evangelism is about breaking down the barriers that mankind has erected over the years. It is about overcoming prejudice, poverty, political irresponsibility, and international tribalism. Yes, evangelism means to bring people to Christ. That will always be the first and most important part of the job. But we must also be aware that a call for a decision for Christ must be related to a call for a decision in Christ, a call to show Christ working in this world.

The events of the last week reminded me of what the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes 3.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

There is a time and a season for everything. And for us this day, the time is now.

There is a time to be born, a time to die. As it turns out, Sunday, April 30th, when we celebrate the baptism of four children, will also be the day that every United Methodist Church celebrates each heritage. Normally, Heritage Sunday would be celebrated on April 23rd, the day in 1968 when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. But with Easter on the 23rd this year, the celebration of our heritage will be celebrated on the 30th. And what better way to celebrate such a heritage than to baptize those four children and bring new members into the church.

This is also a time to build up. I received a note from Reverend Winkleblack telling me that Walker Valley United Methodist Church will receive the $22,000 that it requested. The good news is that $4,000 will be in the form of a grant, meaning that the total loan will only be $18,000. That is why the Finance Committee will be meeting on April 30th. Though the Trustees will undertake the majority of the work being covered by this loan, having this loan means that we can do other things as well. And those we must make the appropriate plans through the Finance Committee.

The prophet Zechariah wrote,

“The Lord of Hosts says, ‘Get on with the job and finish it! You have been listening long enough! For since you began laying the foundation of the Temple, the prophets have been telling you about the blessings that await you when it’s finished. Before the work began there were no jobs, no wages, no security; if you left the city, there was no assurance you would ever return, for crime was rampant. But it is all so different now! For I am sowing peace and prosperity among you. Your crops will prosper; the grapevines will be weighted down with fruit; the ground will be fertile, with plenty of rain; all these blessings will be given to the people left in the land. ‘May you be as poor as Judah,’ the heathen used to say to those they cursed! But no longer! For now ‘Judah’ is a word of blessing, not a curse. ‘May you be as prosperous and happy as Judah is,’ they’ll say. So don’t be afraid or discouraged! Get on with the rebuilding the Temple! If you do, I will certainly bless you.” (Zechariah 8: 1 – 14)

God, through Zechariah, speaks of a great future, one that renews the covenant that God made through the prophet Jeremiah. Our celebration of communion this day marks our acceptance of that same covenant, the one that Christ offered to us so many years ago. As he told his disciples, as we drink from the cup, we drink of the new covenant. This is the time that we begin this new covenant. It is a time to celebrate those being born; it is a time to mourn the passing of those who died. It is a time to build up; it is a time to break down. It is a time to accept Christ in our hearts and by our acts and actions show others the presence of Christ in this world. Christ’s actions were to move us forward, to a better life. It is up to us at this time to close the covenant.

“Two Roads”

This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26. It was also Boy Scout Sunday.


Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poems. I suppose that is because of all that times that I have chosen roads not traveled by others. But though the roads that I have walked have been different from my counterparts, I know that I have traveled them with Christ as my companion.

The same is true for all of us. As we journey through life, we come to points were decisions must be made. One reason we are here today is that, at some time in our life, we decided that the journey we would make, the road we would take would have a singular destination. And just like the tree draws its strength from the stream, so too does the strength we need to complete our journey come from the presence of Christ in our lives.

As Paul said, our faith is built on the singular idea that Christ died and was resurrected for us. Jeremiah stayed true to the task put before him because his roots drank from the deep, life-giving water that assured him of God’s faithfulness to his people.

Paul reminded the early Christian community that this living stream is the firm belief in and commitment to Christ’s resurrection. Without the resurrection, our faith is truly in vain and we are “the most pitiable people of all.” With belief in Christ’s resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount is not just counter-cultural but utterly senseless as well. To claim the resurrection is to know that the least of people will truly will be first, and that our tears truly will be turned into joy. It is the certainty that those mired in death will be raised into new life, that God’s kingdom will reign on earth, liberating the captives and rescuing the poor.

We have to remember that the word “disciple” does not mean “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of someone”. Discipleship in the New Testament meant following Jesus and journeying with Him. As a journey with Jesus, discipleship means being on the road with Him. It means to be an itinerant, a sojourner; to have nowhere to lay one’s head, no permanent-resting place. To journey with Jesus means listening to his teaching — sometime understanding it, sometimes not getting it. It can involve denying Him, even betraying Him.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. While the road we take with Jesus may be an individual one, being a disciple means we make our journey in a company of others. Though we may travel a road less traveled, we are part of a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus. That is why we are here this morning; we have chosen to be part of a community that celebrates the presence of Jesus in our lives.

It is a journey in his company, in his presence. There is a joy in his presence. It is impossible to be said in Jesus’ presence. Perhaps one might feel sadness, but not sadness about existence itself. Jesus spoke of the joy that we would receive when the journey was completed and he warned what would happen to those who felt that the rewards they had gathered on this earth were the rewards that they would get in heaven.

As we invite others to join in this community, to walk with us on the road we have decided to take and share in this joy, we have to realize that each of our journeys is unique. Though we share our journey and celebrate our being a community together, we have to realize that we cannot make someone walk the path that we are walking. Each person chooses to walk his or her own road and we cannot command them to walk road that we walk.

The challenge is not to get others to walk on our road but rather to share in the journey, to arrive at that same destination. Like Paul and Jeremiah before us, we cannot wait for the kingdom to come to us. The waters of our baptism, our understanding as Methodists compel us to start construction here and now.

Following Jesus requires a strength, passion, and courage that is not of this world. Without it, we would all be “done for” after the first week. This source of life and strength is the stream which Jeremiah and the psalmist speak, and only when we plunge our roots deeply into it do we have any hope of being God’s instrument of justice and peace in this troubled world.

Being a disciple is also about being compassionate. “Being compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus. Ours is not to command others to walk on the road that we have chosen to walk but rather to invite others to share our journey with them and to be a part of a community of sharing and compassion.

Discipleship means eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those whom we might want to exclude. It means being nourished by him and being fed by him. Such seems to be the point of Jesus feeding the five thousand in the wilderness, just as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. It becomes a powerful symbol of journeying with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”

As we come to the table this morning, knowing that it is open to all, we are sharing in that journey and the community who make that journey. At some time our roads may separate and the paths we take vary, but we know that it is the destination that we are headed to that counts, not the path we take.

What Time Is It?

This was the message that I presented at the Fishkill (NY) United Methodist Church on 31 December 2000. I have this Sunday listed as the 1st Sunday after Christmas but I used the lectionary readings for New Year’s Day (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

I had moved up to this part of New York in May of 1999 and transferred my membership to the Fishkill Church at the beginning of June. In August, 1999, I began serving as the pastoral assistant to the District Superintendent with the assignment of being the lay pastor for the Walker Valley United Methodist Church. As such, I only knew the pastor (Arlene Beechert) and a few other members of the Fishkill Church. Most of the Fishkill church only knew of my assignment but did not know who I was. So, Pastor Beechert and I looked for a date where we could exchange pulpits and I might introduce myself to my home church at that time.

Unfortunately, the weather on this day was miserable. Services at Walker Valley were cancelled and attendance at the Fishkill Church was minimal. The bad part was that the organist couldn’t make the trip to church and we had to sing unaccompanied. That didn’t help matters. I like singing and think that music is an integral part of any service but I was never a good musician and I have to hear the music in order to lead it. In all honesty, this was not one of my better services. I would return to Fishkill pulpit in June of 2005; I did a much better job that time.

So here are my thoughts for 31 December 2000:

The measurement of time has always been a challenge for mankind. While we can say with a certain degree of certainty that it is 10:00 a.m. on December 31st, the telling of time has not always been that easy. For the founders of the Methodist Church some two hundred and sixty years ago, the telling of time required clocks that were big, bulky, and highly unreliable. And in Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hour glass and the passage of events.

And even today, we still mark the passage of time by the occurrence of certain events. That fact that today is the last day of the year 2000 and tomorrow is the first day of the year 2001 is one such occurrence. The Old Testament reading for today is about the passage of time.

For the Preacher, the name we give to the writer of Ecclesiastes saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful while others are not. And while we may wish to eliminate and do away with those events of life that are not so joyful. But with birth comes death, with love there is hate and with war there is peace.

Does this mean that God condones hatred, war, death, and uprooting? Or are these things beyond His control? I think that is why this reading is paired with the reading from the Book of Revelations. John’s words were words of hope. When John wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, the Roman Empire was exacting a terrible toll on all those who would defy the power of Rome. It was a time of hoping for the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.

But the time of Christ’s return was unknown and though John offers a great hope for that kingdom, He also points out that God is now and forever, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In making a reference to the eternal nature of God, John was telling his readers not to wait for the return of Christ on this earth. In the opening verse of this passage from Revelation, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John offers not a second beginning but a freshness, a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 65: 17, Isaiah 66: 22, and 2 Peter 3: 13

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65: 17)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain befroe me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendants your name remain.” (Isaiah 66: 22)

“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2 Peter 3: 13)

But how is the hope that John speaks about fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Early in the American Revolution Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time when things were not going good for the colonists; such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.

We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. Unlike those in the Gospel reading who asked who were the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, sick or in prison, we know who they are. Yet many times, we like they, walk right by.

Jesus told his disciples and followers that the Kingdom of God was already in place. We do not have to wait for His Second Coming because He is always with us, if we but look for him.

The foundation of the Methodist Church was and will always be in how we treat others less fortunate than us. Granted that salvation only comes to those who accept Christ in their hearts but coming to know Christ is very difficult when you are hungry, when you are sick, or when you are in prison, be it one with walls of stone or one which entraps your soul. John Wesley knew that for the world to be saved, concern for the poor, the weak, and the helpless had to be more than just words said on a Sunday. There had to be action on Monday.

But if we try to take on the task of solving all the world’s problems by ourselves, we will be like the Preacher seeing that after everything was tried how futile our efforts were. Because we alone cannot are not equal to the task. But the Preacher also pointed out that God put eternity in our hearts so as to give us a sense that what was around us is not all there is too life. If we allow God to be a part of our lives each day, then the moments of our lives can be transformed into something beautiful and with meaning.

As we end this year and get ready to begin the new one, it is important that we see what is before us, not in terms of what the world puts before us, but rather in what Christ shows us. Christ shows us that the opportunities to let the world know of His presence are in our actions.

The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.

And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life.”

What time is it? For some it is 1030 and time to get on with the rest of the day. But I hope that it is time to take Christ into your heart and then take the light of Christ out into the world.

“A New Way to See”

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 August 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28. I added the picture of the Cades Cove Methodist Church on 25 September 2011.

During the summer of 1969, my family and I were on our way back from North Carolina to our home in Memphis. We had planned our return so that we could go through the Smoky Mountain National Park and camp there. But as we passed through the Newfound Gap, we discovered that it was quite literally “wall-to-wall” people. We, or rather I, had hoped that we would camp that night in the Cades Cove section of the park but we discovered that it was one of the more popular sections and that unless you had made reservations and gotten there early, you wouldn’t get it. Though it is some thirty years later, it is still pretty much the same today.

I was disappointed because I had read about Cades Cove and really wanted to see this section of the mountain South’s past. I don’t remember just how I felt that summer some thirty years ago but I knew that I wanted to come back there some day.

In March 1988, I drove from near Toledo, Ohio, where I was teaching and living at the time to Jacksonville, Florida, to participate in the American Bowling Congress tournament. On the way back, I decided that I would go through Newfound Gap and make that visit to Cades Cove that I had wanted to do many years before. As I came to the gap, I discovered that there was no one there. What I remembered as being filled with people was amazingly empty. But then again, it was an early spring morning and not yet the peak of the tourist season. So it was that I was able to visit Cades Cove and see the old Methodist Church and get a sense of what the world was like in rural Tennessee and North Carolina some two hundred years ago. The Methodist Church was interesting, if for no other reason that it had one door through which the men entered and another door for the women and children to enter through.

And this trip proved to be more prophetic than I might have thought because the path that I took to get to Florida took me within 15 miles of Whitesburg and Neon, Kentucky, where I was living last year before coming here to New York. I didn’t realize that I had gone that way until I had time to look at the path because the road had been dramatically altered.

So the view that I had, both of Pound Gap in Virginia and Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in Tennessee, was an entirely different one from the one I remembered. How we view things depend on the time and the place where we are.

In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he was “introduced” to God. I am sure that Moses had seen burning bushes before, perhaps as a result of a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. But the burning bush that Moses saw that afternoon was a far cry from what he was prepared to see since it was not consumed by the flame.

God often presents himself in a way that challenges our view of the world. We live in a world that we can taste, touch, feel, see, or smell. But the problem with living in a world based solely on physical evidence is that we find ourselves relying only on the physical world to supply all of our needs. And when that happens, God becomes a God that we only read about or hear someone speaking about. When this happens, we push God to the edges of our lives, only to be called upon in our moments of weakness.

We must see God not as One who only comes to us at the edges of our lives but as One who is a central part of our live. God is more that simply a god of convenience. “I am who I am”, the way that God was to be called by the Israelites, is a name which means faithfulness and dependability. God indicated that He would always be there, not just as times of stress and turmoil. But this name also meant the Israelites give Him their full trust as well. To know God, we must see him in a different view.

When Jesus told his disciples of his impending death, Peter’s response that it would never happen showed that he was still thinking in terms of the world being the center of life, not in terms of a life with God at the center. But what good is a life in which God is not the center?

Jesus spoke to his disciples about this when he said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” A world in which we see God as the center is, admittedly, a difficult one for us to see. It requires that we give up our focus on secular things; it requires that change the path that we walk.

And that, I think, is part of what Paul was telling the Romans. Everything Paul said in the Epistle reading for today runs counter to what we ordinarily do.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Some people are not willing or ready to give up the secular world because it is too much of a challenge. But we do not have to give up the world; in fact, we cannot give up the world. But we can change the path that we walk. All we have to do is change the focus of life, to take God from the pages of the book and make Him a part, the center of our life.

At the climax of Job, Job exclaims “My ears have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job saw his life no longer through the eyes of the world around him but through the eyes of faith and spiritual understanding.

Will we continue to see the world based on that which is around us or will we see it from a view of God as our center? Do we want a live of anxiety or a life of peace and trust? Some day we might be walking along when we see the burning bush? Will we know what we see?

Welcome Home

This was the message that I presented on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 15, 1999, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 45: 1 – 15; Romans 11: 1 – 2, 29 -32; and Matthew 15: (10 -20), 21 – 28.

The scriptures for this morning reminded me of a couple of episodes in my own life. The story in the Old Testament of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after being separated from them for about 20 years reminded me, to some extent, of what happened when I returned to Memphis in 1980 after having left in 1968 to go to school in Missouri.

Now it should be noted that I am the oldest of four children, not the eleventh of twelve sons. And when I moved from Tennessee to Missouri to continue my college studies, I was going of my own accord. Joseph, of course, went to Egypt because his brothers had sold him into slavery.

Like Joseph, my contacts with my family after I left were limited and, after I graduated from college and was married, virtually non-existent. So it was that when I returned to Memphis in 1980, those people who knew my father and my two brothers were somewhat shocked, as were Joseph’s brothers, to discover my existence (the general acknowledgement of my presence was often “My God, do you mean that there’s another one!”). And like Joseph, I recall a great exhilaration on returning to my family.

But the major difference between my story of separation and that of Joseph’s was that my brothers and sister knew that I was alive and, most of the time, where I was living. Joseph’s brothers had no idea that he was still alive and that he had risen to such a position of power and authority.

And it is safe to say that my brothers and their friends was far less frightened that were Joseph’s brothers when he told them who he was. After all, he had far more power than they could ever conceive and their first thought must have surely been that he was going to seek revenge for what they had done to him. And I don’t doubt that Joseph sensed that fear. For as the scripture said,

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.

He sought to comfort them and let them know that all was part of God’s plan.

God’s plan is an interesting phrase. For it can suggest that all is ordained before hand. But if that is the case, it also means that nothing we do changes things. Quite simply, then, there would be no need for us to meet today or at any other time, for we would have no reason to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives; we would have no hope.

And like the woman of Canaan in the Gospel reading for today, we could not seek out Jesus. But that is not the case. God’s plan offers us hope, to know that through our Savior Jesus Christ, we always have salvation. God’s plan is for us to come home to Him. It is that very plan that Paul writes about, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” God shows us his mercy but we must come to Him seeking forgiveness.

Jesus alluded to that plan when the woman from Canaan came to him that day, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” While that may have meant only the Jews of Jesus’ time, we have come to know that all who are lost can be saved by Christ.

The other episode that the scriptures today reminded me about occurred during the spring of 1969 while I was at college. That year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions. But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus.

Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security.

First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed. So, when it came time for me to go back to Memphis for Easter, I felt that I needed to first celebrate communion at my own church. So I went to Marvin Fortel, the pastor at First that year, and asked if there were some way I could take communion before leaving for the spring break.

Reverend Fortel was surprised by this request. No other student had ever made such a request before but he agreed and we met at the chapel of the church. Rather than a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant.

I remember arguing with Reverend Fortel about the words that we find on page 30 of our present hymnal, those words that the Canaanite woman spoke to Jesus so many years ago. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us?

But I had it backwards. It is by Christ’s death and our faith that we are saved. Like Joseph taken away from his home in slavery, sin takes us away from our home in heaven.

Deep sadness and an aching loneliness mark life in exile. The cries of Joseph upon being reunited with his brothers were heard throughout the palace. It is expressed in the words of Hymn 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” which we sing at Advent, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

The feeling of being separated from home and longing for home runs deeply in us. It may be one of the reasons the movie E. T. was so popular. Those who saw the movie can remember E. T. pointing his finger at the sky and saying in a haunting voice filled with prolonged yearning, “Home.” In our own lives, the experience of exile as estrangement or alienation can be felt as a flatness, a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning, when one day becomes very much like another and nothing has much zest. We yearn for something that we perhaps only vaguely remember. Life in exile thus has a profound existential meaning. It is living away from Zion, the place where God is present.

But if our problem is exile, of being separated from God and our home with him, what is the solution? The solution is a journey of return. The invitation for communion that I took some thirty years ago starts over with “Ye who truly and earnestly repent of your sins”. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return”. The invitation to return sounds throughout the second half of the book of Isaiah, spoken by a prophet whose name we do not know.

In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40: 3 – 4)

The beautiful and powerful language of this prophet has become familiar to us through Handel’s use in his work, The Messiah.

But, as Paul pointed out, God does not reject us and He has not forgotten us. The gifts that God has for us are irrevocable. God knows that we have sinned but still grants us mercy when we seek Him.

We may be like the Canaanite woman, thinking we are outcast but by our faith in Christ, we can hear God speaking to us, “welcome home.” It is the longing for home expressed in the gospel hymn (#348) “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me.” The invitation is given to you this morning. If we believe in Jesus, He becomes a part of us. If we open our hearts to Him this morning, then we know can hear God saying to us, “Welcome Home.”