Who Goes First?


I am preaching this morning at Poughquag United Methodist Church. Here is the text that I will use. Let me know what you think.

Tony

This was the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23- 32.

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Some of you might think that there is a connection between the title of my sermon and Abbott and Costello’s comedy routine, “Who’s on first?” There is something of a connection but it is more about how the routine is done rather than the routine itself. For those who do not remember or have never heard this classic routine, it is a dialogue between two individuals about the makeup of a baseball team. The problem is that one individual says “Who is on first” as a declarative statement while the other uses the same phrase as a question. There is much confusion as the two individuals work out the players and their positions.

But the reason for my title and the connection to this routine is the fact that it is something that challenges us to listen carefully to what is being said. I personally lament the loss of such comedy and feel that the comedy of today is too quick and visceral, as opposed to the thoughtful political satire that I first heard growing up. It was comedy that challenged us and made us think, something I fear is no longer prevalent in society today. In fact, our society seems a far cry from the society in which I grew up, one in which challenges were a part of our life.

In 1961, John Kennedy spoke before an audience in Houston, Texas, and declared that this country would go to the moon. After summarizing the recorded history of civilization, President Kennedy concluded,

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (http://www.jfklibrary.org/j091262.htm)

But I fear that the spirit of the challenges put forth that hot September day in 1962 is long gone. Those of that generation remember the energy and spirit that filled the days; those of my generation, just children, were the beneficiaries of that spirit. But that spirit and the challenges that were laid before us in those days seemed to have disappeared in the past forty years. Even though NASA announced plans to return to the moon in the coming years, it was done as almost an afterthought, “gee, we haven’t been there; maybe we should go and see if things have changed.” And now, as members of Congress began to discuss how to pay for the cleanup in Louisiana and the Gulf, cutting the return to the moon was mentioned as one way to pay for it. No discussion was mentioned about other ways to recover the cost if it would take away from the pet projects of Congress and the Administration.

That we do not seek a challenge today should not be surprising. In 1990, the noted entrepreneur Charles Handy noted,

“Later on, I came to realize that I learned nothing at school which I now remember except this — that all problems had already been solved by someone, and that the answer was around, in the back of the book or the teacher’s head. Learning seemed to mean transferring answers from them to me.

A few paragraphs later Mr. Handy quoted John Dewey,

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

If we have removed the nature of discovery and have made life without challenges, it should not be a surprise that life is the way it is today. It should not be a surprise that the change in how society views challenges has affected the modern church. Much has been made about the decline in church membership, especially in the United Methodist Church. Some have said that the decline in membership in the mainline churches has occurred because the church has failed to answer the basic questions of its members.

Members today are looking for answers and many churches are failing to provide them with the answers. Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

But I fear that these new churches are going to quickly find that their brand of the Gospel is no better than what people criticize the United Methodist church for, a message that is designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But I believe, as I believe John Wesley did, that you cannot save a person’s soul if they are hungry, if they are naked or homeless, or if they are oppressed. For the United Methodist Church, the problem is and will continue to be that we have failed to establish why we believe what we believe. We have forgotten that once we have accepted Christ as our personal Savior, we must work to help others find Christ in their lives. We no longer challenge people. But that is what Christ did; he challenged his listeners and followers. As we read the Gospel lesson for today, we need to see that Christ is challenging us to determine which of the two sons we might be.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks “which son are we? Are we the faithful or the unfaithful son?” Both of the sons lied to the father but one changed his mind and went to work while the other never followed through. Like the Pharisees, we know the answer to the question – the hero of this parable is the son who did what his father asked. But who among us has not been like the second son? We all know how hard is it to keep the promises that we have made. We would rather direct this parable to others. All of those right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with their success-oriented gospels and mega-churches, they are the ones who should be the subjects of this parable. (Adapted from “Showing Up” by Roger Lovette, “Living by the word”, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. If we do, we will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.

We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. (Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)  To take the Bible seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say is the beginning of our troubles. Those who would argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable do not deal with the contradictions that it contains. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradictions but because they are so demanding. The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans to understand, though it would not be to literalists. (Adapted from “The Burden of the Gospels” by Windell Berry, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We have to remind ourselves is what we do that makes the difference. In 1969 I began to look very seriously at what it meant to be a Methodist. I thought it was what I did that counted the most, not what I believed. But I was reminded that if I did not believe in Christ as my savior, then it really didn’t matter what I did. But, on the other hand, if I believed as John Wesley did, then I needed to put my thoughts into action. It is a reliance on words and words alone that have brought the United Methodist Church to the brink; it will be the words that many evangelists speak today that will drive away those who are searching for meaning in this dark and gloomy world.

It is our actions of which Paul writes “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philippians 2: 4 – 6)

The first people of God complained loudly and long that God had forsaken them in the desert of the Sinai. They had complained when the Egyptian army was bearing down on them while they stood on the edge of the Red Sea. They had complained when there was no food to eat and they felt that they would die of hunger. And in today’s reading, they are complaining about a lack of water. It is almost as if the people of Israel do not want the challenge of reaching the Promised Land. Each week we have heard how the people of Israel felt that their times in Egypt were better times than were their travels through the Wilderness. To hear them say it, it would be better to have died in slavery, content with living in oppression than it would have been to reach the Promised Land, the home of their forefathers. But not everyone criticized Moses. God tells Moses to take with him selected elders and then He will provide the water.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

So too is it for us. There are those who relish the challenge; there are those who see God’s glory rather than God’s wrath. There are the ones who, when faced with poverty, sickness, or oppression, react and seek resolution. There are those who avoid challenge. There are the ones who seek to blame or say that person’s sorrow is a reflection of their sin and whatever happens is because they have fallen from God’s favor. We need to be more of the former than the latter; we need to hear God calling us to work in the vineyard and we need to answer that call.

It is no longer a question of who will go first but rather what will be done first. We are faced with two questions today. For some, it is the same question as the disciples were given so many years ago in the hills of Galilee, “Who do you say that I am?” And there are others who are hearing the question that Mary Magdalene heard that first Easter morning some two thousand years ago, “Who do you seek?” Those seeking the answer will find that answer in the words we say and the things that we do.

This is the day that the challenge is placed before us. You are challenged to answer the questions that have been posed before you and you are challenged to help others find the answers as well. How will you respond?

What is a person worth?


This is my post for tomorrow, September 17th. As with the others, if you wish to use parts of this or the other posts, please let me know at TonyMitchellPhD@optimum.net

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The greatest disaster of this month was not the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the Gulf Coast of the United States; it was what the people of the United States have done to the residents of the Gulf Coast.Now some will say that it was the New Orleans city government that failed; some will say that it was the Louisiana state government that failed; and some will say that it was the Federal government that failed.All did but all of these political bodies were elected by the people; it is the people who failed.

Now I know and I am aware that many individuals took upon themselves to begin rescue operations.Many individuals ignored the restraints put on them by all of the government bodies and went ahead and did what had to be done.But, from the very moment that it was clear that this was a disaster in process, how many people thought only of themselves and what they needed to do.Did anyone stop to think about the others who might not get out?

The Israelites began their journey, the Exodus, out of Egypt not with rejoicing and celebration but with complaining.First, as the Egyptian army bore down on them, they complained that they were going to be killed on the battlefield, not in their beds.Then, when they got hungry, they complained that Moses was going to cause them to die of hunger in the desert.In the saga of the Exodus, they then complained about the lack of water.Each time, God saved them.

First, he helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea and then drowned the Egyptian army in the same waters.Then, in today’s Old Testament Reading, he feeds the Israelites with manna from heaven.We could continue this reading and note that God, through Moses, warns the people to take only what they need and no more.Those that are greedy will find that the bread they gathered up but did not consume will rot overnight.The people learned early in the journey across the desert that God’s word is true and one should listen to it.And when it is time to observe the Sabbath, God tells the people to take enough for two days.But not everyone listened and, thus, they went hungry.

Jesus is making the same point in his parable about the laborers.In God’s eyes, we are all the same.Yes, in today’s world, those who work an eight-hour shift should receive more than those who only work two hours.But, in this parable, all those who work in the vineyard know that they will receive the same wage for their efforts.They have to realize that in this case, it does not matter whether one works two hours or a full day.But I think that we can say that if we are all equal in God’s eyes, then the rewards for our efforts should be equal, if we do equal amounts of works.If we choose, and that is the key, then we should not expect the same.

Hurricane Katrina did not differentiate between rich and poor, healthy and sick, those who had shelter and those who did not; the people did.And it continues, even after this devastating hurricane has gone.Those who have are able to survive and those who did not have still suffer.The politics that existed before somehow still survived the storm and we read of no-bid contracts, the removal of fair wage requirements and a lack of concern for environmental considerations.

We have all come to see that there is a great divide in this country, between the poor and the rich.It is somehow reminiscent of the economic divide that drove John Wesley to ask if the church cared for all of God’s children.

John Wesley looked at poverty as an evil to be eliminated through every allowable means, not as a necessary consequence of culpable failure on the part of the poor, or as the unavoidable fate of those excluded from God’s election. He constantly investigated the causes of poverty, encouraged and applauded diligent labor, and strove to awaken in the rich and influential a sense of responsibility for eliminating social evils. Wesley vigorously opposed injustice and dedicated himself to seek the welfare of the poor.

God’s love for all people became the cardinal point of ethics, and indeed for the whole Christian life, which is described in Wesley’s belief in perfection. To put into practice this “love for all people,” Wesley initiated various activities toward self-help and charitable deeds to relieve their distress. He encouraged his classes to collect funds, food, clothing, fuel, and medicine and health care for distribution to the poor.

Yet, those who had the ability to help often times turned against Wesley and the early Methodist reformers.What would Wesley say today, with the divisions between economic status so great and now so visible?What would Wesley say today with the growth of the mega-churches and the “feel good” gospel message many pastors preach?What would Wesley say to a pastor who wears a $2,000 suit when he himself let his hair grow long so that the money he saved could be given to the poor?  (http://www.gborocollege.edu/prescorner/holiness.html)

What lies before us is a chance to change the direction that we are headed.God has shown throughout the ages what He can do; God has also shown what He will not do.Some will say that 9/11 and Katrina were God’s work, to show us His anger at the sin that we have allowed to envelope our country.But the ones who make such claims are among those who judge others before acting.I have said and written it before and I will do so again.If God has the ability to take us away in the moment of rapture, as some claim that he does, then God has the ability to wipe out the sinners among us with one quick swipe of his terrible swift sword.

Perhaps God allowed 9/11and Katrina to happen because he wanted to give us another chance to follow him—and not in words, but in deeds.

Here is a chance to show that we really do want to belong to him; that we really do love our neighbors as ourselves and are willing to lay down our lives for our friends. Are we ready for the challenge? I hope so.

After 9/11, we said we would never let things go back to normal. In a way, they haven’t. But for most of us, daily life has gone on as usual. That became clear in the wake of Katrina. Our first concern, judging by the headlines, was how the hurricane had affected oil production and other commodities. Only after that did we begin to address the tremendous need of half a million shattered lives. (Adapted from http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/jca/Gods-Trumpet.htm?source=DailyDig for 16 Sept 2005)

What is a person worth?What shall be the value of our lives if we, as Paul writes to the Philippians, live to the flesh?Paul said to live one’s life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.The Gospel message is one of care for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.It is not about becoming wealthy, it is not about exclusion or rejection of those you think are not worthy of concern.Our lives today should what a person’s worth is, not what they are worth.Our lives today should be about caring about others, not caring only about ourselves.Then, the Gospel message of Christ will be fulfilled here on earth, as it is in heaven.

At What Point?


This was supposed to have been posted last Sunday, hence the reference to 9/11. The point is still valid.  These are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 September 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.

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On this the fourth anniversary of 9/11, we need to stop and not so much pause to remember those whose lives were lost in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but look and see what we have done since then. I am not saying that we should ignore those deaths but it is quite clear that the squabbling and arguing that has dominated the past four years has shown that we do not know how to best honor and remember those individuals. At what point will we begin to decide that it is better to remember and honor these individuals by working to remove the reasons that caused the attacks in the first place?

We are now locked in what seems to be an endless war in Iraq. The reason for this war was linked to the attacks on 9/11 but there has never been any proof that there was a link. The people responsible for the attacks on 9/11 have not been caught and continue to taunt our political leaders from afar. At what point will we, the people of this country, begin to question the rationale and the reasoning for the war which does nothing but sap the strength of this country by taking away the youth of this country?

Peter asked Jesus how much forgiveness one should give someone who wronged you. Jesus said that we should go beyond your anger and forgive them more than they angered you. We seemed to have forgotten this teaching of Christ as we seek to wreak vengeance on those who have wronged us. At what point will our public proclamations that we are Christians become our actions?

Paul points out that it is up to God, not us, to determine justice. He wrote to the Romans “who is it among us that can judge others? Is not God the ultimate and final authority?” (my interpretation of Romans 14: 1 – 12) Paul also noted that “every knee shall bow to God”, so why is it that we still insist that we have the right to judge others.

Yet, that is exactly what is happening in this world today. As Bill Moyers noted, there is a growing population who feel that they have the right to tell us what is on God’s mind, be it with regards to 9/11 and its aftermath or Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. We all have the right and the ability to interpret what God is saying but we do not have the right to impose those thoughts on others or to claim that they are the “true” meaning of God’s thought. (http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0909-36.htm) At what point shall we realize that we can never be God nor should we claim to be God’s voice. We can say that we are God’s representatives but not God’s mind nor His thoughts. Have we forgotten what happened when the people tried to build the tower of Babel?

The Tower of Babel was built so that the people of the world could remain as one people. This was in defiance of God’s commandments. God told Noah and his family to repopulate the earth following the Great Flood. This required that they disperse over all of the earth. In building the Tower, the people wanted to come together in a single place, in direct opposition to God’s desires and commandment that they spread out. God chose to give each person a different language so that they could not communicate individually and thus not conspire against Him. Those who say that they speak for God and try to force us to follow their line of thinking apparently don’t remember this warning from God.

The results of Hurricane Katrina remind us that we can never expect to win the war against nature. Moses was able to part the waters of the Red Sea but that was only because it was God who did it; Moses was simply the instrument by which it was accomplished. At what point will we realize that we are God’s instruments and not God Himself?

At what point will we see that God gave us the ability and the capability to act to bring this world closer to the kingdom of Heaven? There are those who want to push science back, saying that it subverts and replaces God. But science allows us to see the great works of God, not replace God. At what point will we understand God wants us to learn so that we can see our world better?

We cannot say that it is God’s will that a hurricane destroyed so many lives and so much property because there was sin and wickedness in New Orleans. Nor can we say that God allowed the tragedy of 9/11 because of the politics of this nation. It has become increasingly clear in both cases that it was we who ignored the warnings of impending doom and disaster.

Those who make such claims also believe that God will take them individually from this earth at the proper time. But if God were to exercise that power and take away His believers at a moment’s notice, could and would He not simply single out the sinners of this world and destroy them rather than allowing such wholesale destruction? He did it before; why would He not do so again?

God sent a sign in the form of a rainbow to Noah that He would never again destroy the world in a manner such as the Great Flood. He also sent a second sign in the form of His Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. At what point will we heed the message of the Gospel and work to improve this world, not destroy it with our greed and ignorance?

Katrina showed that we have ignored Jesus’ mission. At what point shall we realize that it is we who are the ones who asked “when did we see the sick, the weak, the homeless, and the oppressed?” While those that had were able to escape, the sick, the poor, the homeless were not. We have too long ignored the fringes of society, feeling that they were somehow unworthy of being part of society. At what point will we begin to realize that all of us, not just some are God’s children?

We look around us each day at the violence, death, destruction that comes from nature and our own forces. At what point shall we stand up and say that this is enough?

At what point will we truly become the followers of Christ that we say we are? Today should be that point when we begin to make the Gospel message a reality on this earth and not simply words said politely on Sunday morning?

I hope that all that has transpired this past month and all the events of remembrance for those who died on 9/11 and those who suffer on the Gulf Coast will help you hear Christ calling to you, I hope that you will feel the Holy Spirit tugging at your heart and asking that you open your heart.” I hope that when you finish reading this, you will take the light of Christ, that one shining light in a world of darkness and despair, out into the world so that others can begin to see that there is hope.

Who is to blame?


Who is to blame for the failure of society to come to the aid of the people of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina?  We all are.  Let us not blame anyone in the Federal Government, the Louisiana state government, or the New Orleans city government but take it on ourselves.
Yes, each political entity failed in its responsibilities to the city.  The present administration has consistently brought forth the view that such aid is the responsibility of individual citizens and the private sector.  But individuals have come to expect that in a time of a horrific crisis such as Katrina, the federal government would be there.  So we start the rescue effort for the disaster with each person expecting someone else to do the job.
And when are we going to learn that when a disaster transcends multiple boundaries, that individuals and state organizations are not capable of handling the aftermath.  The people of New Orleans listened to their local and state officials and were trapped.
Would the reaction, local, state, and federal have been the same if this had been a terrorist attack?  Katrina has demonstrated just how incapable our federal government is in responding to a national catastrophe.  What can we expect if we are attacked by terrorists?  We have spent last four years hearing that we are in a war with terrorists; all of our resources have been directed toward that goal.  The movement of FEMA into the Homeland Security bureaucracy was directed towards the eventuality.  Many people do not feel any safer because of the presence of the Homeland security; how secure are we to feel if we don’t think we will be helped in any further tragedy?  
While we recover from the tragedy of Katrina, we must also look to future and prepare for whatever may come.  We have had this opportunity before but what have we learned?
People are pointing out that the lessons gained from disasters such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994 have quickly been forgotten.  We have not learned to anticipate what will happen.  
But this disaster was just waiting to happen.  If it had not been August of 2005, it might have been September of 2005; it might have been sometime next year.  But the fact of the matter is that it was going to happen.  We have been building levees around New Orleans since 1727.  While levees keep waters out of other areas, they also change the natural flow of the river.  There is at least one current scientific report that shows that the wetlands and delta south of New Orleans have been dramatically altered because of the levees.
What many people in the United States don’t know is that the Army Corps of Engineers spends a large amount of money keeping the Mississippi in its present river bed.  Just north of Baton Rouge is the Old River Project; a massive engineering project to keep the Mississippi from changing course and joining the Atchafalaya River (see http://www.mvn.usace.army.mil/recreation/Recreation_Sites_Old_River.asp) for  details.
The fact that there are scientific reports on the destruction of the wetlands surrounding New Orleans and there are reports outlining the dangers a storm as such Katrina could present underscores the desperate problems of American education.  We may have one of the highest graduation rates in the world but that does not mean that our students and the population in general are capable of critical thinking.  The recent effort to bring accountability into the educational system has only and will only continue to mean that our students know how to memorize short bits of information.  Most students and their parents can not see the implication of their actions beyond today!  Many individuals, when presented with a bond initiative to improve local schools and libraries, vote against the bond initiative claiming that it is too expensive.
This is not a time to argue about the way public monies are spent.  It is probably true and there are probably better ways to spend the money (in general terms, I personally feel that administrators are paid too much and classroom teachers are not paid enough).  But the continued failure to fund our educational processes is beginning to show.  We are loosing the lead in technology to China and India and we are beginning to see the effects of not understanding what is happening to our world.
And the failure to understand what is happening in the world also means that people do not understand that they are the ones who can make the difference.  Our political process is quickly becoming the arena for a dedicated few who concentrate on what they want, not what is best for the country.  
The cry to do what you can for your country (as John Kennedy so eloquently spoke in 1960) is quickly becoming what can the country do for me?  The enthusiasm of the 60’s is quickly changing to cynicism and apathy.  Yes, I know there are those who feel that they must do something; but there are only a few.  Yes, I know that people have opened their wallets and written checks to help in the current disaster.  But have they learned?
What will happen when the next disaster occurs?  There will be disasters beyond what Katrina wrought and we cannot spend time thinking about who to blame.  While we recover and rebuild, hopefully better and safer than before, will we also be preparing for the next time?  If we do not do so, there will be no one to blame but ourselves.

Lexington, North Carolina


This is the message that I will present this morning at Vails Gate UMC (Vails Gate, NY). Please let me know what you think; also, if you want to use what I have written here, please let me know.  (This post was edited on 12 March 2008 to remove some programming errors)

Thanks!

In peace and with Christ – Tony Mitchell
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When I began reading the Scriptures for today, my first thoughts were of my mother’s home town of Lexington, North Carolina, and the times we spent visiting there while growing up. Hence, that is the title for this sermon. But as I struggled with and worked on this sermon, my thoughts changed from the days past when I was growing up to the days present.

For me, growing up in the south, hurricanes are not just items on the evening news or something read about in the newspaper. So the impact of Katrina has hit me just a little harder than perhaps it did you. And the knowledge of what is happening in New Orleans has added to what I was thinking a few weeks ago.

The three scriptures that we have for today have two common points, fear and trust. While decided several years ago, it is quite evident that they are very appropriate and evident for today.

Very few people seem to be asking what sort of a spiritual impact this disaster will have, and whether we are going to let it affect our consciences and our collective soul. Shouldn’t we all be praying for a spiritual renewal, and for a new era of justice and love? To me, that is the sort of question we should be asking.

Having said this, I’m sure that the people who have been personally devastated by Katrina are dealing with these deeper issues, and I pray that they find the nearness of God like never before. (1)

Our world today is filled with unknowns and fears. Not only have we had to deal with Hurricane Katrina, we read of forest fires in Portugal and the western United States, mudslides in the Alps, the continued violence, destruction, and despair in Iraq, and the on-going famine in Darfur.

Others fears, both real and imagined, gnaw at the back of many minds. We cannot begin a day without hearing what the color of the day is; we have been encouraged to view any stranger we encounter as a threat, either as a terrorist or as one who will steal our identify from us. It is no wonder then that the enthusiasm of the young is being stifled and gradually replaced with caution, reserve, and apathy. (2)

Our politics have almost totally become politics of fear. Politicians no longer campaign on the good things they will do but rather on what terrible things their opponents will do.

I am the son and grandson of career military officers. It is quite likely that my grandfather passed through this region as his infantry regiment was transferred from Fort Meade, Maryland, to Plattsburgh, NY, in 1921. Because my father made his career as an Air Force officer, we moved around quite a bit.

Lexington, North Carolina, is my mother’s home and a place that we visited from time to time. It was the place where I was baptized, and as such, it is a place that I consider one of my hometowns.

One summer during the early 1960’s we were visiting my grandparents. While there my two brothers and I went to the movie theater in town. While trying to find a place to sit, we inadvertently wandered into what one would politely call the “colored” section. Even though the theater was a public theater, this was the south and it was still a time of segregation.

What I remember of that moment was that while it was easy to pass from the “whites only” section, it was very difficult to pass back. The gate that separated the two sections only swung one way. It was easy enough to figure out that you needed to pull the gate back rather than push it forward. But when you are in a darkened theater with two younger brothers, it is a frightening and uncomfortable situation. It is such a situation in which fear can quickly grow.

Unfortunately, the legacy of segregation and the fear that can come from that odious practice is still with us. The news coming out of New Orleans is just a hint of the decades of oppression and fear that was imposed on the minorities in this country.

It was also fear that drove Matthew to write down the words of the Gospel that we read this morning. In all of Jesus’ parables, he challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. This passage goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (3)

If you stop and think about it, these cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem. If that fails, then they were to be expelled from the church.

Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree?

There are those who feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.

These words still have a meaning for this day and time, for this is a passage of patience and gentleness. When you feel that you have been wronged by someone, you should make the first approach. When you point out that fault that has produced the rift between the two of you, it is to be done in love and friendship. One should use such a visit as this for the purpose of regaining a lost brother or sister, not for humiliation or condemnation.

Even if this private visit fails, the individual should not be branded as anything publicly. Two or three others, chosen for their Christian grace, are to be told so that their urgings can be added. It is only if they fail that the whole congregation should be told but not so that they can thrust this individual from their company and compassion. Only the individual’s own actions can drive them from the church.

These passages offer us a glimpse into the problems of the early church. Even then, there were careless and wayward members; sometimes there were even open scandals. The epistles confirm this picture of the early church. When we re-read verse 18, we see that it has been fulfilled. The church sometimes determines what interpretations should be forbidden (bound) and which should be sanctioned (loosed). The church, both the early one and today’s varieties and versions, have not been as gentle in discipline as the Gospel reading proposed. The church many times has acted with cruel vigor. The curse and penalty discussed in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (“hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature (4) may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (5) is not gentle and it has been carried far beyond Paul’s time.

Matthew has combined in this writing a call for Christian patience and a great yearning for unity in the church. (6)  There was truly a fear that there would be those whose work would destroy the building of the church and perhaps there was a need for such scripture. But fear should never drive what we do or we should we use fear to disenfranchise people.

We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. We will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.

We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. What we should take from this passage is that we are encouraged to remove the divisions between people, not building up walls that divide. We are encouraged to unite people with Christian love and grace, not separate people through fear, hatred and condemnation. And do we not sing

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me…
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., came to Memphis to help the garbage workers in the strike against the City of Memphis. On April 3rd, he spoke not knowing what would transpire the next day. On that night he said,

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

On the next day, Dr. King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King foresaw his death. He knew without a doubt that it was coming, and he had every right to be afraid. But he wasn’t. So why should we?

There can be no doubt that there was fear in the minds of the Israelites that first Passover night. What if the Angel of Death should not see the blood smeared on the door to their house? What if the Pharaoh would not heed this last warning from God and let them go? What were they going to find as they went out into the desert? There truly must have been fear in their minds. But they trusted God.

And just as they trusted God to lead them through the desert and to the Promised Land, so too must we trust in God. So too must we work to show others that God has not forgotten anyone. In the reading from Romans for today, Paul quiets our fears. We know that our future is secure through Christ’s death and sacrifice on the cross. The blood of the lamb smeared on the doors of the Israelite homes in Egypt is now the Blood of Christ soaked into the Cross on Calvary. With this, how can we be afraid of what might come before us.

We must, as Paul encouraged us from centuries past, to replace fear in this country with true Christian love. If we allow fear to control our lives, it will conquer our lives. And if fear conquers, it will breed anger; and anger will bring hate. We must bring, through our words, our deeds, our thoughts and prayers the light of the world that was brought in our lives when we first accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior.

In a time when disaster seems to bring out the worst and causes mankind to distrust mankind, we must work to bring out the best in people. In a world where people see disaster and question the very existence of a loving and kind God, we must use our skills and talents to show that God is a positive presence in every ones lives.

For me, Lexington is just one of many places that I call home. It is where I came to know Christ as a baptized infant. Though it was a place where I came to know one manner of fear that people used to control others, it was a place in which my journey with Christ also began. We each have such a place in our lives; we must work to make sure that others do so as well.

(2) Adapted from “Searching for the Mountaintop – Finding a purpose in a Time of Fear” by Johann Christoph Arnold – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/jca/jca-mountaintop.htm?source=DailyDig

(3) Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005

(4) Or that his body; or that the flesh

(5) 1 Corinthians 5: 5

(6) Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)

Who are you?


This was to be my “blog” for August 28th; it is based on the common lectionary for that Sunday, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost.

If you like what I write or would like to use what I write in some of your writings, please contact me. I use other sources that are not always marked in my writing. My e-mail address is TonyMitchellPhD@optimum.net

Have a good week!
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I am not a fan of the television show “CSI” or any of the other new crime genre shows.I think that they tend to oversimplify the analytical procedures used in forensic science and they glorify the process beyond what it is.This is not to say that the methods used in the shows are incorrect or not accurately portrayed; it is just that most of the analytical methods take longer than one hour.But, on television, the crime must generally be solved within sixty minutes for the show to stay on the air.

So I don’t watch “CSI” or any of its spin-offs.But, if the television is on, I know when the show is starting because of its theme music.The theme for the show is The Who’s “Who Are You?”Though I know the words and why the song was picked, I am not so sure that many of the people in the younger generation, for whom the show focuses, do.But my discussion today is more on the question the song asks rather than any crime that might need solving.

I was reminded of the song because of the Old Testament passage for this particular Sunday.Moses, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, encounters God via the burning bush.Moses’ reaction, as ours would be is, “Who are you?”God responses with the cryptic “I am who I am.”This phrase, in Hebrew, is the basis for Yahweh, the term often used to mean God.

As I said, Moses’ response is probably what we would expect and what I think we might say if we were in a similar situation.I also think that we would respond in much the same manner that Moses did when God asked him, Moses, to do something in His name.

Instead of “Who are you?” the query becomes “What gives you the authority to ask this of me?”And Moses also starts, as we would, to find reasons why he is not the person to whom God should entrust this task.

Nothing Moses does in this scene from the middle of an Arabian desert should seem strange or unusual.Granted, standing there watching a bush burn but not being consumed is rather strange and unusual but Moses’ responses are what we would expect because they are the responses we would give.When we encounter someone new, we are apt to ask who they are.And if this friend of ours should ask us to do something we often ask “by what right they have to ask or tell us to do that.”

When Hurricane Katrina first approached the Gulf Coast and authorities were telling people to leave, the response, for some, was this later response.Many choose to stay, feeling that they could ride out the storm as they had done many times before.Many also stayed because they had no other option.

But those, who had been given the opportunity to leave, found themselves faced with a storm stronger than anything they had ever imagined.Those who so quickly refused to head the warnings of authority quickly found out that there was no possible rescue because such an attempt would endanger too many lives.

What we have, with these two different groups (those that had the ability and opportunity to leave when they had the chance and those who had no ability to take advantage of the opportunity before them) is a clear reflection of the Gospel.Those without the ability to take advantage are those whom we need to be with, helping and assisting.Those who have the opportunity but refused on their own free will are like Peter in that moment following His declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus had asked His disciples “Who do the people say that I am?”He followed this up with a direct question to the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”Peter was very emphatic in his declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promise to His promise.But in the very next paragraph, the Gospel reading for today, Peter tries to stop Jesus from moving onwards to Jerusalem and the completion of the mission.Jesus asks Peter “by what authority he (Peter) has to stop the mission?”

This is the dilemma we are faced with when we are face to face with Christ.We know that without Christ in our lives, we are condemned to death.We know that with Christ, we are promised an everlasting life.But we must give up everything that we own and are in order to follow Christ; it is something that not many of us are willing to do.Every time Christ made this type of announcement, the number of those following Him grew smaller.People were not willing to follow in His footsteps if it meant giving up what they had on earth.

But, if we are to follow Christ, we must live a new life.No longer can we live in a world where violence is met with more violence.No longer can we live in a world where people take advantage of human misery and suffering for their own profit.In Paul’s letter to the Romans for this Sunday, he noted that we should feed and take care of our enemies.Rather than respond in kind to oppression, we should respond with love.

Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia, tells the story about the time his daughter was being harassed by the school bully.Mr. Jordan stated that he was ready to forget all that he was saying and preaching about Christian love and use worldly methods to deal with this young man.But his daughter told him to let her solve the problem in her own way, to use Christian love.As she told her father, every time the boy came around, she gushed and proclaimed how glad she was to see him.Finally, the boy became so embarrassed that he quit coming around and harassing her and when he saw her coming, he turned away.By responding in love and kindness, the harassment stopped.

If, in a world of hatred, darkness, and despair, we bring some light and hope through our love, will the world not be a better place? If we respond to the Gospel message by bringing help to the oppressed, the sick, the needy, and lost souls of this world, will not the world be a better place?We have seen through this week what happens when people lose hope, when the promise of the future is bleak and dark.We are standing on the road and Jesus is asking “Who are you?Are you My disciple, willing to carry my cross and take the Gospel into the world?”

We are not happy!


We sent the following letter our Senators (Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer) as well as our Representative (Sue Kelly). A copy was also sent to CNN. We will get a response from our representatives but it is more likely going to be a “canned” response. We are in a crisis and we have no leaders.
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For the past several days we have watched in horror as fellow Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana have been forced to live in conditions that we wouldn’t even let animals live in. The delay in giving the type of aid and assistance necessary to alleviate these horrendous conditions can be placed directly at the feet of the current Administration in Washington, DC.

The conditions which exist now in New Orleans are indicative of the attitudes of the Bush White House. Mr. Bush was quick to take us into war against Iraq but he’s a day late and a dollar in short when it comes to helping our own American citizens.

While we spend billions of dollars for a dubious war in Iraq, and have sent thousands of our young people to fight in this war, our own citizens go wanting. Now a national disaster, one that we have never seen in our history, has plunged this country into a nightmare, the proportions of which cannot be described.

President Bush’s response, as noted in today’s New York Times, was a day late. It was an unimpressive speech and one that showed that he has no connection with the real country.

It should also be noted that Congress has failed in its responsibilities to its constituents. As was noted on CNN, Congress rushed back to Washington to pass a law which interfered with one person’s family. But now, with Congress in session, where are the leaders of Congress. We applaud Senator Landrieu from Louisiana for being with the people of Louisiana but we have neither seen nor heard from either her colleague in the Senate or either of the two Senators from Mississippi. In a time when leadership is desperately needed, those whom we have elected are nowhere to be seen.

It is true that the National Guard’s first role is to support the Army and the Air Force. But the National Guard has always been the force that states could count on in times such as these. But our National Guard has been stretched to the limit; just as our Armed Forces have been stretched.

The looting and lawlessness that now seems to pervade New Orleans could have been avoided if the New Orleans city police and Louisiana state police did not have to take on tasks for which they were under-equipped and under-manned.

Second, why did this Administration not budget enough money to reinforce the levees surrounding New Orleans? From what I understand funds to accomplish reinforcement were requested for the past 8 years but New Orleans received only about 10% of the requested amount. This disaster has been seen and modeled in countless computer simulations. We knew what would happen; why did we not work to prevent it?

This disaster, far beyond anything ever imagined, will take more than simple compassion to resolve; it will take action not only by individuals and the private sector but by the government, elected by the people of this country to provide leadership.