"Divided Families"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 8/18/13

Luke 12:49-56

“Divided Families”

August 18, 2013


Let me tell you a little story about some people you see every week when you walk into the narthex, staring at you from the wall.[1]

The first of them is Barbara Heck.  She was born in Limerick County, Ireland and grew up speaking German.  She lived in New York and died near Montreal.  Her married name was actually Hescht, but in English it turned into Heck, and apparently that was entirely appropriate.  She understood what Jesus was talking about when he said,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” [Luke 12:51-53]

See, she had grown up in a community of German immigrants who had settled in Ireland as part of the same mass migration that brought the Pennsylvania Dutch to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  In Ireland, like here, they proved to be excellent farmers, but there the landlords responded by raising rents on them and milking all they could out of the migrants.  The poverty and the anger and the isolation led them to become an especially hard-living group that was known for its excesses.  It didn’t help that in fifty years they never had a pastor who spoke German.  That was until John Wesley, who spoke it fluently, began to pass through there on twenty-two trips to Ireland.  His preaching set off a revival, and at the age of eighteen, Barbara gave her heart to Christ.  That took place right before the landlords began to confiscate the common lands and the Irish Germans, pushed to the limit, decided to move to North America.[2] 

In 1760 Barbara Heck found herself, then, in New York City.  They had been there about five years when they were joined by another group of Wesley’s people from Ireland, including her cousin Philip Embury, who had been a local preacher before emigrating.[3]  During that five years, the Germans had slipped back into their old habits, and there came a day when Barbara walked into a room and found a group of men, possibly including Embury, gambling at cards.  She scooped the deck off the table and tossed it into the fireplace and told Embury in no uncertain terms that he needed to start preaching to them again or the Lord would hold him responsible for whatever depths they fell to.[4]            

Shortly after that, she marched her husband, their slave Betty and a day laborer whose name is unknown and sat them down in Embury’s house to hear the gospel and to pray.  The group grew quickly, made up mostly of Irish immigrants and Africans that shortly outgrew the house and so they built themselves a chapel.  There they were joined by this man, Captain Thomas Webb, a British regimental commander, who kept the group together when the Hecks left New York City as they saw the Revolution coming.[5] 

It is now the John Street United Methodist Church, two blocks from Ground Zero, and in addition to housing a vital congregation it was the site of our ministry to the workers cleaning up after 9/11. 

Barbara understood that when the gospel comes into somebody’s life, that it shakes things up because it reorders our priorities.  She had seen the destruction of lives that had been part of the community’s experience in Ireland and knew the danger that gambling presented, then and now, and would have none of it.  She was not simply going to stand by and watch the cycle repeat.  She knew that it did not have to do that, and the way to break out of it was to begin right there, with her own family, and with the good news.

People in the same family will have different priorities.  If you are certain of yours, then stick with them.  Understand that not everyone – not even those closest to you – is going to get it: 

“five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

A college chaplain I knew told me about a call he received from some parents one time, worried about their daughter, whom they knew to be active in the Wesley Fellowship on that campus.  They wanted him to sit her down for a talk.  “What’s the problem?” he asked.  He knew her well, and thought everything was going alright for her: she was a medical student who was about to go out and start her residency.  That was the problem, said her parents.  She had just told them that she was turning down a residency in surgery and announced that she was going into public health.  Instead of a respected and honorable career leading to a comfortable retirement, she was looking at years and years of civil service jobs, dealing with immunization clinics, and infectious disease control in slums.  They were sure it had something to do with what she’d been hearing on Sunday mornings and wanted the chaplain to clarify things for her; she’d clearly misunderstood.

The thing is, that she had understood perfectly.  She knew well Matthew’s version of the words we heard from Luke this morning.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matthew 10:34-39]

It’s a great story, and I have no idea how it ended.  I’d like to think that her parents came around.  I’d like to think that eventually they came to realize that life is found in that kind of discipleship – but I just don’t know.  What I do know is that somewhere on this planet there is a town or city where a child has been vaccinated because of her choice, or where a parent has been kept healthy enough to provide for their children because of her dedication, or where a grandfather has lived long enough to hold a baby in his arms and pray for God’s blessing, all because of a disease that he did not catch from a mosquito that did not bite him because she insisted on good drainage.

And I know that she did that because she chose to follow Christ.


[1] The paintings are part of a longer series of water color portraits of people of faith, mostly Methodists, by Jack Schaenkle that hangs in the back of First United Methodist Church, Phoenixville, PA.  Come see them.

[5] http://media.sabda.org/alkitab-6/wh2-hdm/hdm0211.pdf  Webb was instrumental in the establishment of Methodism in Philadelphia and the founding of St. George’s United Methodist Church.

Good Guys and Bad Guys
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Blog - September 2013

I write this the day following terrible events in Egypt, where the army shot and killed somewhere between five hundred and two thousand protestors – no one is sure whose count to trust.  Western journalists have also died in the past week, targeted by people siding with those whom the Egyptian army opposes.  There is some question whether many of the dead were women and children who were being used as “human shields” by the protestors or whether the bullets were simply fired indiscriminately.  Both of these groups are predominately Muslim, but in towns scattered throughout the country, churches have been attacked and burned in retaliation, although reports of heightened vandalism were rife before the shootings.

I listened to an American reporter comment on all of this on the radio and was struck by a question from his interviewer: “So, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?”  The second of silence that followed was probably filled by an internal groan before he answered, “There are none.”

He was right.  In this, as in so many situations, we want to have those clear divisions but they just aren’t there.  People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons.  The same person may be kind to somebody on their right and cruel to somebody on their left.  The same words may be heard by one group as a declaration of freedom and by another group as the announcement of oppression.

In real life, Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies is not just some unattainable ideal.  It is a practical necessity.  Once we start deciding whose humanity is or is not worth respecting, we begin to lose track of the deepest truths.  All people are created in God’s image, and are called good [Genesis 1:27, 31].  At the same time, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23].  Lose track of either of those facts, and you lose track of what it is for both you and anyone else to be human.  To love what is good, even in an enemy, or at the very least to honor whatever within them is common to all people, is to pull back from violence and depravity.

Look for that image of God that is in your opponent before opposition makes you see them as an enemy.  In the words of George Fox, the seventeenth-century Quaker, “Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. Thereby you can be a blessing in them and make the witness of God in them bless you. Then you will be a sweet savor and a blessing to the Lord God.”[1]




[1] George Fox, “To Friends in the Ministry” written from Launceston jail in 1656.

"Wise Investment Strategies"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 8/11/13
Luke 12:32-40
“Wise Investment Strategies”
August 11, 2013

            Jesus talked about how the way that we use our gifts here on earth being an investment in heaven.

“Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” [Luke 12:33]


That’s been misused sometimes to extort money from people with the idea that somehow it’s possible to buy a place in heaven.  There were all kinds of barons across Western Europe in the Dark Ages who would keep their people essentially in slavery and then go off and slaughter their rivals or skirmish with their neighbors over next to nothing, then turn around and endow monasteries and great cathedrals as a way of (in their mind) compensating for their deeds.  While encouraging that kind of thought is an effective way to balance a church budget, it’s very bad theology.

            What Jesus teaches is that

“where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  [Luke 12:34]

That is a whole lot more profound, because it recognizes that where we direct whatever we value, whether it is money or time or effort, not only shows what is important to us but also anchors a part of us in the place where it goes. 

          There’s a little-known story by J.R.R. Tolkien, nowhere near as famous as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but thought-provoking in its own way, called Leaf by Niggle.  It’s the tale of a painter named Niggle who tries to paint a tree, but is always being interrupted.

“He was kind-hearted, in a way.  You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper, and swearing (mostly to himself).  All the same, it did land him in a good many odd jobs for his neighbor, Mr. Parish, a man with a lame leg.  Occasionally he even helped other people from farther off, if they came and asked him to.”[1]

Tolkien was a faithful Christian, by the way, a Roman Catholic who was active in his local church, so you might see some kind of allegory here about an artist who’s always being interrupted in his “real work” by Mr. Parish.  I’m not going there, though.

            The point of mentioning this story is what happens to Niggle as it goes on.  The day comes when he is called to go on a long journey and finds himself in a beautiful forest that he suddenly realizes has sprung from the single tree that he struggled so long and hard to paint.  In the place he came from it was flat and two-dimensional, and he was never really satisfied with how it looked.  In the place he went, it was real and fully-formed.

“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished.  If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.  He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.  ‘It’s a gift!’ he said.”

Jesus said,

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]

Too often, we think of that as a distant, future event – and that is what it is, in its fullness – but there are moments even here and now where the kingdom of God is among us.

            Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a sonnet called “Dante” that is about how he felt when he sat down to work on his translation of Dante’s poetry from Italian into English.

“Oft have I seen at some cathedral door 
A labourer, pausing in the dust and heat, 
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet 
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor 
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er; 
Far off the noises of the world retreat; 
The loud vociferations of the street 
Become an undistinguishable roar. 
So, as I enter here from day to day, 
And leave my burden at this minster gate, 
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray, 
The tumult of the time disconsolate 
To inarticulate murmurs dies away, 
While the eternal ages watch and wait.”

His desk was the place where creative activity, touched by God’s grace, brought heaven closer for him.  I’ve heard other people, with other talents or other interests, remark that when they are woodworking or making music they sometimes have that feeling.  In the movie Chariots of Fire the Olympic runner Eric Liddell is asked about what it means for him to be a Christian athlete and he answers, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

            Those moments of creativity, of generosity, of love, of kindness, of mercy; all of those times when you put your whole self into something good, no matter whether anybody else appreciates what is happening or not: those are times when heaven is right at hand.  It isn’t that they earn us heaven; only Jesus does that for us.  They are a bit of heaven touching earth.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to us that

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” [James 1:17]

And one day, by God’s grace, we’ll see how very many such gifts we have known without even realizing it.  So, meanwhile,

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  [Luke 12:32-34] 

[1] A pdf of the whole story can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/10232245/JRR-Tolkien-Leaf-by-Niggle .  You may have to load the page more than once before it appears.  Maybe that is symbolic – you’ll get it if you read the whole thing.

"A Tale of Two Brothers"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 8/4/13

Luke 12:13-21

“A Tale of Two Brothers”

August 4, 2013

Bleak House is one of Charles Dickens’s great novels.  It centers on characters who are thrown together by a fictional lawsuit called “Jarndyce versus Jarndyce”.  Dickens describes the case this way:

“This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it all means.  The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.  Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.  Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit.  The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.  Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; …there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”

Then, in chapter 65 of the book, the lawsuit comes to an end because the entire estate is finally used up in court costs and lawyers’ fees. 

It’s a great joke as Dickens tells it but it isn’t all that funny if your last name is Jackson and you’re trying to get your slice of Neverland Ranch.  It isn’t funny if your last name is Mandela and you’re part of a big argument about who gets buried where, since where there are tourists there will be concession stands.  You don’t have to travel far to see it in person: in Northeast Philadelphia, there is a Geiger’s Bakery that makes great buttercake and a Geiger and Sons Bakery that makes great buttercake from the same family recipe.  Do not get them confused with one another; it gets ugly.  Even Jesus wanted to stay out of that kind of dispute.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’” [Luke 12:13-14]

            What makes it so awful is that when families fight over inheritance, two rotten aspects of human nature come into play.  On the one hand is greed and on the other is envy.  Money or property or possessions can and do come between people who should love one another.  At the least, you would think they would treat one another with whatever respect comes with being kin.  When the fur starts to fly, though, it is hard to stop.  The time comes when it becomes impossible to sort through the right and wrong of it all.  It’s far better at the outset to hear Jesus’ warning:

 “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” [Luke 12:15]

Although poverty will definitely make your life harder, riches will not necessarily make your life easier – at least not the kind of riches that can be put into a will.

            It isn’t just where inheritance comes into play, or even sibling rivalry.  Jesus’ teaching is that we should be, as he says, “rich toward God”, a large part of which is to be in good relation to the people whom God has put into your life.  That won’t happen if money or possessions are more important to you than they are.  There’s a line in Hello, Dolly! where the title character says, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure.  It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

            John Wesley had a lot to say about the influence of money on spirituality.  In 1786, he wrote about his concern for the revival that gave birth to the Methodist movement. 

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long.  For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches.  But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”[1]

            Perspective and priorities matter so much.  What is most important?  Is having cash on hand right now a reason to destroy the environment for future generations?  Is a CEO’s ability to boast about his or her compensation (and boasting can be done by ostentation as well as by word) so important that somebody else is not paid a living wage?  Again, it is not that people don’t deserve fair compensation – but at whose expense? 

            In the end, it may even be at the expense of the one who amasses the riches.

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” [Luke 12:16-20]

Good question!  Or will two brothers be fighting over them?

Youth and Family Bowling - August 22
Category: Archive
Tags: Limerick Bowl

Youth, Families and Bowlers of any age are invited to bowl on Thursday, August 22nd @ 1pm at Limerick Bowl.  For $10.00 we will bowl for two hours, youth members will be enjoying pizza and drinks afterward.  Come join us!  Please contact Cheryl Cini in the church office at 610-933-5936 if you are interested or email at cacini@fumcphoenixville.org.

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