What’s Love Got To Do With It?


This was my message for the 4th Sunday in Easter, 11 May 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18.  It was also Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day Proclamation – Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, disarm! The Sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

————————————————

The number of things that have a Methodist background has always amazed me. And today is no exception. For the fortunes of the Welch’s Grape Juice and Mother’s Day are both deeply rooted in Methodism. The founder of Welch’s was a devout Methodist who wanted to find a viable alternative to wine that could be used in communion and, Mother’s Day, as you read in the bulletin is a tradition that began many years ago in a Methodist Episcopal church in Grafton, West Virginia.

Observed on the second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day honors all mothers. It began in its present form with a special service in May 1907 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, organized the service to honor her mother, Anna Reese Jarvis, who had died on May 9, 1905, for her work during the Civil War organizing women, working for better sanitary conditions, and to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. (For those who may not remember their United States history, West Virginia seceded from Virginia in protest to Virginia’s secession from the Union. West Virginia became a state in 1863.). By 1908 Anna Jarvis was advocating that all mothers be honored on the second Sunday in May. In 1912 the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized the day and raised it to the national agenda. It has some parallels with the old English Mothering Sunday in mid-Lent, which focused on returning home and paying homage to one’s mother, and with Mother’s Day for Peace, introduced in 1872 by Julia Ward Howe in Boston as a day dedicated to peace (see the note at the beginning of the post).

The relationship between mothers and the cause for peace is by no means ironic or casual. We have to understand that war runs counter to the nature of life and, more times than we perhaps care to admit, it is up to the mothers to keep the family together. I do not mean to limit the role of the father in the family but, in times of war, fathers and sons are away fighting and it is to the mothers and wives that the bad news of death is given. I hope now, in this modern day, when daughters and wives go off to war, and fathers and husbands must grieve that people will work more strongly for peace. Unfortunately, what will happen is that instead of working for a more just and righteous world and giving all people equal opportunities in all venues of life, efforts will be made to return women to their “more traditional” roles.

Even today, there are countless examples of mothers striving to seek peace and justice in this world. It was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who brought down the Argentina government and an end to that government’s reign of terror in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. This group of mothers banded together to demand an accounting for the people, including their children, who were arrested and disappeared in that period of repression and cruelty.

The Nobel Prize committee thought so highly of the work of two mothers, Betty Williams and Mailread Corrigan as co-founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement, for their attempts to bring peace to Northern Ireland that they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, noted that many of her male colleagues who suffered a similar fate to hers (house arrest and imprisonment) for the roles in the democracy movement spoke of the great debt of gratitude they owed their womenfolk. She also noted that “Women in their role as mothers have traditionally assumed the responsibility of teaching children values that will guide them throughout their lives.” (Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech to the NGO Forum on Women in Beijing, China, on August 31, 1995)  We note in the history of Methodism the role that Susanna Wesley had in the upbringing of the Wesley family, most notably Charles and John. Now, no matter what the stories concerning the upbringing of the Wesley children, the influence of Susanna as a parent and her own religious background had much to say about what Charles and John came to believe.

I cannot put my mother in the same category as that of Susanna Wesley (that might be too low a level) but I can say that my knowledge of righteousness, fair play, loyalty, and understanding the role of the church in one’s life came from her. It was from her that I did learn what true and unconditional love is.

It may be a surprise to many people but neither of my parents, nor my siblings for that matter, share my political beliefs. In 1969, when I was perhaps more vocal, I came across an organization known as “Mothers against the Viet Nam War”. They were selling necklaces with the slogan “War is not healthy for children and other living things” engraved on it. I bought one for my mother, thinking it would be an appropriate gift for her and a statement of what I believe. (The recent events of this year have spawn a renewed interest in this organization and it now has its own web page,www.warisnothealthy.org.) But when she got it, she wrote me and told me that she wasn’t exactly thrilled by the stand I was taking. This was a comment I would hear a couple months later when my participation in a public protest became known outside the boundaries of Kirksville. But she would cherish the memento because I was her son and because she loved me.

Being a parent, whether it is as a father or a mother often requires a statement of unconditional love. We are reminded of the story of the prodigal son who demanded and was given more from his father that he was entitled too, who squandered away what was given to him, but was welcomed back to the household with open arms and a love that could not be measured. Our Gospel reading for today speaks of the love a shepherd has for his sheep.

The parable of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep points out the difference between someone who looks after the sheep and someone whom cares for the sheep. The person who cares for the sheep will go to great distances to find lost ones and bring them back. And as Jesus pointed out, He is the shepherd and we are the flock he is caring for. He is willing to lay down his life so that we may continue living.

John follows this up with his first letter pointing out that as Jesus laid down his own life for us, we should lay down our lives for others. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and see a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3: 17)  John reiterates the point that it is our love for others and nothing else that will make a difference in this world.

Peter’s challenge to those assembled in Jerusalem comes because they, the rulers, elders, and scribes could not see doing something because of a love for that person as a person. Any action taken must have some benefit for the doer and not just because it is the right thing to do.

The new reality of life is built on Jesus, the cornerstone, and that is foundation built with love for others. This is the message that is put forth in the Gospels time and time again. But it was a message not easily heard back then and it is certainly not a message easily heard today.

We see countless examples of the actions of some benefiting only themselves with little concerns for others. We see mothers and fathers whose actions seek the favor of their peers and their children, instead of instilling true love and loyalty in their children’s hearts. We see children whose actions belie what they say they stand for, perhaps as much as the actions of their parents belie any statement of value or belief in their own lives.

It is fortunate for us that we are celebrating Communion today, because it gives us a chance to remember that it was a table set with and by unconditional love. As we take the bread and drink the juice this morning we are reminded that Jesus died for our sins so that we might live again. We are reminded that Jesus was sent by the Holy Father as a sign of his love and concern for each and every one of us.

Tina Turner sang a song that had the line “What’s love got to do with it?” In that song, love was nothing but a secondhand emotion. But love has everything to do with what this day is about, the love of mothers for their children, the love of children for their mothers, and most importantly the love of a Father for his children.



Who You Gonna Call?


This was my message for the 4th Sunday in Easter, 14 May 2000, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18.  It was also Mother’s Day.

————————————————-

Today is Mother’s Day. As noted in the bulletin, today is an outgrowth of efforts by a Methodist woman some 90 years ago to honor her mother.

One should not think of the Methodist Church as solely the work of John Wesley or the combined efforts of John and his brother Charles. As with all efforts, there are always many factors that should be considered. The work of their mother, Susanna Wesley, in raising them had as much to do with the birth of Methodism as any other single factor.

Susanna nurtured their minds and spirits, tamed their wills without crushing their spirits. Patiently, she helped her children to learn at a pace best suited to their own ability. For their benefit, she wrote little books of instruction on religious themes. Later, after the children were grown, she was always there to offer counsel and guidance.

So, on this day when we honor our mothers, I hope that you will allow me the opportunity to speak about the two mothers most important to me — my own mother and my paternal grandmother.

Both my grandmother and my mother were officer’s wives, committed a life of following their husbands from one post or air base to another. As the burden of raising my father and uncle fell upon my grandmother’s shoulders, so also did the burden of raising my brothers, sister, and I fall to my mother.

My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It comes as a surprise to many people when they find out that not only is my mother a grandmother but that she is a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she neither looks her age nor allows her age to dictate what she is going to do (though the artificial knee she has seems to think otherwise). That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my paternal grandmother as well.

For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. Whenever my father was transferred to a new base, she sought out the closest church so that we could go to Sunday School and church every week. When I was in college and began to enjoy the freedom of getting to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I found something missing if I didn’t get up and get on over to church. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning, a legacy that comes from my mother caring about my upbringing when I was young.

My grandmother, Elsa Schüessler Mitchell, was just as interesting a person. While going to school in Kirksville, MO, the northeastern part of the state, it was easier for me to visit her in St. Louis than to go home to Memphis. And when I would visit her, my parents would always tell me to help my grandmother with the housework and the yard work, especially during those hot, humid Missouri summers. Yet, try as I might, I never could. For my grandmother would get up early in the day and spend an hour or so working on the yard, tending her garden and flowers before the day got too hot or humid.

And though my grandmother died in 1985, her memory lives on. The flowers and shrubs that she so tenderly cared for were transplanted to my mother’s yard in Memphis and continue to grow to this day.

And in all the memories I have of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, the core membership of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settled St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life, providing her comfort and companionship in the years after my grandfather had died and her sons and grandchildren had moved far from St. Louis.

And when my father died in 1993, I learned something about my grandmother that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life. We asked a particular pastor who knew my father through the Boy Scouts to officiate at the funeral. As he talked about my father and scouting in general, he recalled one night shortly before my father died. That night he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. Now, the way the pastor said it, you could tell that he did not understand my father’s actions. But my brothers, sister and I knew that my father had been raised a Lutheran and we knew how proud his mother, my grandmother, was to know that my father was coming home.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I know that my grandmother loved me and that my mother still loves me. And perhaps it was that same sort of love that a mother or a parent has for a child that allowed Anna Jarvis to find a way to honor her own mother in 1907 so that we celebrate Mother’s Day this day. In so doing, we celebrate the presence of the family, both our immediate one and the greater one of the church to which we belong.

The central theme in the Scriptures today is about the love that we have for each other as members of one family. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its very end, the focus was always on the family. From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, his family was a part of the story.

Jesus was born at a family reunion.

In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kin; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. (Luke 2: 1 – 7)

When Jesus was twelve and the family was returning from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph did not worry about their son not being with them because they thought that he was with other members of the family.

When the festive season was over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know of this; but supposing that he was with the party they traveled for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their friends and relations. (Luke 2: 43 – 44)

And when Jesus began his ministry and performed his first miracle, as we heard from Bob Pinto two weeks ago, it was at the wedding of a family friend.

Yes, there were times when it seemed that Jesus ignored his own brothers and sisters but Jesus knew that His family, with God as the Father, were all those who believed in Him and followed Him.

“His mother and his brothers arrived but could not get to him for the crowd. He was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, and want to see you.’

He replied, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it.” (Luke 8: 18 – 21)

Some might say that Jesus was cruel to ignore His family in such a way, but Jesus saw that the every one was a potential member of His family, not just those with whom he grew up.

And though Jesus might have had difficulty with his own family because they didn’t always understand his ministry, He never forgot His own family. Even on the cross, at the point of near death, His own thoughts turned to His mother.

Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)

John, in the second reading for today, speaks of the love that God, our Father, has for each of us, his children. And how that love should be given to others as a sign of the love that God has for us. It is that same love that mothers have for their children. It is the same love that would have a daughter seek to honor her mother and all mothers.

It is a very difficult task in this day and age to take care of one’s own family, let alone the whole word. What parent today would calmly go about their business if they did not know where their twelve-year-old was, as Mary and Joseph did?

The challenge before us this day, on this day when we celebrate what our mothers mean to each of us, is to show the world that we are all part of God’s family. The work of the church in the community today is a family business.

When the church becomes a part of the community, its impact goes beyond measure. Some years ago I met the Reverend Rose Sims at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. As we talked, we found that we shared a number of things in common. It turned out that she got her doctorate from the University of Missouri at the same time that I received my Master’s degree. And not only that, her primary advisor served on my graduate committee. And her path to the ministry began with small churches in rural Missouri and lay speaking.

When she came to Minnesota to speak and evangelize that summer, she was coming from a small church in Florida that many had given up for dead. She had been asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community. In his first letter, John wrote of turning that we have, the love that God has for us into more that just words or speech but into truth and action, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3: 18)

When we were young and we needed help, we called our mothers. Maybe it was something simple like fixed a cut on our knee, or as we got older to fix a button on a shirt. Later, after we left home, we might call back to get a recipe for something to eat. We know that we can always call on our mothers.

Now we are older and perhaps we are the ones who take care of our mothers. And this we do, not because we have to do it, but because of the love that we have for our mothers.

Using the analogy of the shepherd and the flock was deliberate on Jesus’ part. Since the people who heard the story knew shepherds and the devotion they had for their flocks, they could understand what Jesus was saying. They understood that the sheep in a flock understand the shepherd’s voice and would respond to that voice.

On this day when we celebrate our mothers and what they mean to us, when we celebrate what the family means to us, we know that we are a part of a much larger family, the family with God as our Father.

When we needed to, we could call on our mother and she would be there. Now, when we need to, we know that God will always be there, like the shepherd tending his flock. And for others who are lost and seek guidance, we, as the church and members of God’s family, will be there to help them.



A New Level of Consciousness


These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 3: 12 – 19, 1 John 3: 1 – 7, Luke 24: 36 – 48. 

This is also Heritage Sunday, the Sunday in which we commemorate the union of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church. It is of some importance to me because I came to this point in my journey through the EUB Church. I was confirmed and found Christ in 1965 at the 1st E. U. B. Church of Aurora, Colorado (see “Thoughts for Scout Sunday”, “The House We Build”, “A Scout is Reverent”, and “Holding The Key To Tomorrow”). This is also Native American Sunday (see “Knowing God”).

I have had one recurring thought/theme in this journey of mine and that is the development of one’s consciousness. Consciousness, if you will, is the awareness of one’s self.

When I began the work that lead to my doctorate I studied the work of Jean Piaget and his ideas on the development of thought from early childhood through college. His ideas, in conjunction with the work and research of Dudley Herron, have given me a lot of thought with regards to how to teach chemistry. And when I was at the University of Memphis (when it was still called Memphis State University), I learned about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (somewhat analogous to Piaget’s model of development but dealing with concepts of morality rather than analytical thinking).

But I have never delved into the idea of how we develop our own consciousness. The discussion of the past few years, especially in terms of creationism and evolution as well as the rise of atheism in the popular literature, has given me time to think about that idea.

It seems to me that a hallmark of a sentient being is that they are aware of their own existence; at least at one level, this means that they have a conscience. And if you have a conscience, then you have to have some sort of belief system.

All civilizations, be they the Middle Eastern civilizations that we hold to be the ancestors of our current civilization (and which we often forget) or the Asian civilizations and Native American cultures that developed concurrently but have somehow been laid aside in our movement forward in time, have a belief system. It is a system that developed as we, as humans, first looked around our surroundings and began to ask questions. Not just the questions of “how” but also the questions of “why”.

Out of our own consciousness and the questions that we asked about our existence, we developed the concept of gods. Such gods were the explanation of why things happened and the entities to which we addressed our problems and concerns. But as our awareness of the world around us increased, our need for such gods to explain things diminished.

And while we perhaps know what brings rain, causing lightning and thunder and other such phenomena, we still are trapped by the questions of “why are we here?” or “why is there good or evil in the world?” It may be that the one basic question that taunts our lives each day, no matter whom we are or where we live, is “why do good things happen to bad people and why do bad people seem to enjoy the riches of life when there is suffering in the world?”

Every civilization, from the moment we began to organize ourselves into collective human groups, has asked those questions and, more times than not, come up short. But what are our options?

Some will tell us that there are no gods and that everything can be explained through rational thought and process. If that is the case (and yes, I am perhaps oversimplifying it), then good and evil are a part of our own being, something in us from the beginning of our lives. If this should be the case, then we will wander into ethical discussions that, quite frankly, I do not believe that we are capable of discussing.

And the fact is that, if we believe that some people are inherently good and some people are inherently bad, then it becomes very easy for us, individually and collectively, to sanction the torture of another human being. After all, clearly they are bad and we are good (or not as bad).

Quite frankly, if we hold to a line of thinking that allows that type of action, then I think we are denying our own humanity. And I think it is even worse, if we do have some sort of belief system (be it Christianity, Buddhism, or anything else) but quietly accept such behavior; then we have problems far beyond our fears for the security of this country. An acceptance of good and evil as part and parcel of our being makes it quite easy to diminish the worth of or demonize an individual.

And if we hold to the notion that our conscious develops somehow internally from our consciousness, then we need to look at how it develops. And again, no matter what belief system you hold to, it is clear that there is something common in all of them, something that transcends race, nationality, time, and place. It is perhaps again over simplification but the fact that there are common points in all belief systems, that there are common traditions in the mythologies of all cultures and civilizations suggest to me that there is a Supreme Being. I have come to believe in a God who created this world and who sent His Son to save us. In my own development, I have had the opportunity to see others who believe as I do and I have had the opportunity to see others whose belief system is just as valid as mine. This does not make either of us right or wrong; what it does is make it necessary to further seek the truth.

What it also says is that those individuals who insist that there is no God, no Supreme Being are missing something in their lives. It is perfectly acceptable to deny the existence of a Supreme Being but such a denial leaves you with a gap in your consciousness and makes it necessary for you to develop extraordinary concepts to explain ordinary things. Good and evil, happiness and sorrow, laughter and crying cannot develop from within the makeup of the body but are part of one’s soul or spirit.

Now, I am not saying that a belief in a Supreme Being eliminates the idea of good and evil. Nor am I saying that having such a belief makes it easier to justify behavior such as torture or greed. Anytime your actions imply a greater worth to your life than the life of someone else, anytime you make the argument that “my god is better than your god”, then you have placed yourself at the top of the hierarchy of your belief system and subverted the entire purpose of what your belief system is supposed to be about.

This is, in effect, what the political and religious systems of the early modern era did. Those who tried, convicted, and crucified Christ and those who sanctioned that trial and its outcome placed their purpose in life above the purpose in life of all people.

When Peter spoke to the crowd, he pointed out that those who carried out the trial and crucifixion of Christ were unwilling or unable to see or hear the message because it moved against their own wishes. They were quite content to live at the level they had; after all, they had everything. Jesus was going to take it all away and share it with the people; therefore He deserved to die because His was a radical idea.

Even today, we have people who use the church as a means of conveying their own agendas, secular or sectarian. And too many people today accept that view because they have come to believe that if they do the same, they will achieve the same power and glory. But those who have the power and the glory are not willing to let others share; it is against their version of their operating belief system.

When Peter speaks of the people acting in ignorance, it is because they were unwilling or unable to move beyond the plane of thought that had dominated their lives for so many years. And just as repent was the commandment the Baptizer gave when he first came out of the wilderness and just as repent was the commandment that Jesus Himself gave when He first began His ministry, so too does Peter tell the people to repent and begin anew.

To understand Jesus’ motivation, you can not live in the present system but instead you must change. We must be born again was another way He spoke of this new life. In his first letter, John speaks of the readers being God’s children, of being in that new stage of development, that new stage of consciousness.

It is very difficult for many people today, as it was two thousand years ago, to visualize Jesus’ message of the Lord who was the Servant. They cannot conceive of someone proclaiming a Kingdom in which roles are reversed and the least shall go first. They cannot conceive of a kingdom that calls for sacrifice first.

Power comes from the top down, not the bottom up; concern must be for those at the top of the pyramid, not the ones at the bottom who support them. Too often, we have interpreted the call from Christ to go out into the world and make disciples of all mankind to mean that we can make others be our servant. If we are to understand what Jesus spoke of, we must first cast aside our old ways and begin anew; we must arise to a new level of consciousness, one in which we understand that His death on the Cross freed us from a lifetime of slavery and death.

And we must tell others and we must show others that Christ is alive. We are not going to do it with words alone but with actions. And our words must be words of love and compassion, not threats and condemnation.

We have an interesting challenge before us. To meet this challenge we must rise to that new level of consciousness found in Christ.

The Magician’s Secret


This is my message for the 3rd Sunday in Easter, 7 May 2000, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures are Acts 3: 12 – 19, 1 John 3: 1 – 7, Luke 24: 36 – 48. 

————————————

When I first looked at the scriptures for this Sunday and wondered what I would call the sermon, I thought about magic. After all, for a magician to be successful, he or she must create an illusion. We, the observers, are led to see one thing when something else is going on. But, after further thought, I might follow the thought of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and the good doctor on the Voyager, both of which are based on illusions.

But, it really doesn’t matter which idea I follow because it was what the disciples saw that day shortly after the resurrection that prompted the thought of illusions. We live in a world that demands proof of things. And in the disciples’ time, when life was far less sophisticated, this would have been even more so.

To the disciples, the appearance of Jesus in that locked room surely was an illusion. Yes, they would have liked Jesus to be here with them, to offer hope and solace for the days to come. But, they all knew that dead men do appear in locked rooms before their friends.

Similarly, Peter challenged those who had witnessed the miracles that John and he had just performed to explain them.

Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple’ who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John Peter said, “Look at us.” So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them — walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3: 1 – 10)

It must have been an illusion because men who have been lame all their life simply cannot just get up and walk and jump.

But, by eating the fish and the bread, Jesus offered the disciples the proof they wanted that he was alive. And the people knew that man that Peter and John had healed and so they knew that his healing could not have been a staged event. When Jesus ate the fish, it showed that he was really there (something the doctor on the Starship Voyager would have trouble doing). And when the beggar stood and walked into the temple, the only reasonable explanation was that God had healed him.

But what about us, this day in the year 2000? How do we know, how can we explain what happened? The challenge is much like what we read in last week’s Gospel reading. Thomas told his compatriots that he would only believe that Jesus was alive when he had the opportunity to put his hands in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and to touch the side of Jesus where the spear had pierced His side. When Jesus appeared before Thomas and allowed him to touch the wounds, he pointed out that there would be many who would never see the wounds but would believe anyway.

Faith is an interesting concept. It is an abstract one because you cannot measure it. And if you cannot measure it, then you have no way of knowing how much you have. And if you don’t know how much faith you have, how will you know if you are worthy of Christ?

Life in this world can be and often is grim. It can be a life of limited vision and blindness, in which we see what our culture conditions us to see and where we pay attention to what our culture says is worth paying attention to. It is a world of judgement: I judge others and myself by how well I and they measure up. It is a life of anxious striving and feeling okay or not okay to the extent that we do or do not measure up. It is not a time in which it is good to be uncertain.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door, he was challenging the belief that one could buy one’s way into heaven, that is one’s works were good enough to get one into heaven. But if we cannot measure our faith, how will we know if we are worthy of Christ?

When John Wesley came home from America it was, as I have previously mentioned, with a feeling of failure. And to compound his feelings of failure, the trip back across the Atlantic was not an easy one. And during one very violent storm, he saw a group of Moravians simply praying. Now, the praying may or may not have calmed the storm but it was clear to Wesley that each member of that group received a strength that they may not have otherwise had. But instead of giving comfort and solace to Wesley, this merely added to his grief. For, though he was convinced that his faith was strong, it did not offer him the strength he needed at the time he needed. Wesley’s faith, at that time, was a faith built on a structure of tasks and works.

It is grace through faith, not salvation by works that saves us. And even though we know this basic tenet of faith, we find ourselves still measuring how much faith we have. In a society where worth must be tangible, we have fallen into the game of measuring faith as well. And when we measure faith, it becomes something that God requires of us. And if we lack in our faith, then we risk the peril of eternal punishment.

But if we see our faith only in terms of measurable quantities, then we do not understand the message that Jesus brought. Jesus’ message challenges many commonly held beliefs of family, wealth, honor, purity, and religiosity; His message challenges us to see life in a new way, not bound by society’s rules.

In a world when the Kingdom of God was seen in terms of a large and glorious mansion, Jesus offered the thought that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. Not only was a mustard seed one of the smallest seeds that the people knew, the mustard plant was also considered to be a weed. How could Jesus compare the glorious Kingdom of God to a small seed that was only a weed.

In Jesus’ time, children were nobodies, yet Jesus told everyone that the Kingdom of God was for them. What kind of Kingdom is the Kingdom of God welcomes even the lowliest of society? And in a time when the family was the primary social structure and the center of identity and material security, Jesus spoke of leaving the family and even ignoring one’s parents. It is little wonder that those secure in a traditional world would find nothing meaningful in Jesus’ message.

Jesus’ message can only be understood if you see it from a new, alternative viewpoint. Jesus gave us an invitation to see God, not as the source and enforcer of requirements, boundaries and divisions but as gracious and loving. Jesus also offered the invitation to follow a path more and more centered in God. What Jesus offered was a view to see life as a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God, not as a life of requirements and reward.

This is certainly a challenging message for us this day. Our culture’s secular wisdom doe not affirm the reality of the Spirit; the only reality of which it is certain is the visible world of ordinary experience.

John, in his first letter, speaks of how to live a righteous life. Forty-six times he used the word love. He pointed out, in the passage for today, that God’s love prompted Him to make us His children through the death of His son. John wrote that genuine love always results in action — not merely sentimental words. If the Spirit of Christ is in us, then others will see it. Our physical bodies may not change, but our lives will.

And God’s presence in our lives is revealed through our conduct. Righteous conduct will not produce righteous character but will reveal God’s presence in us. If we lead a life in Christ, then our lives change.

The secret you see is we know that Christ is alive. He is alive in our hearts. And when others see how our lives have changed, from a life of anxiety and stress to one of peace and trust, they will come to know Christ as well.

 


 

The Dilemma of Modern Christianity


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Easter.  The Scriptures for today are Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2: 2, and John 20: 19 – 31.  This is also a political piece but the times demand it.

——————————————————-

For as long as I can recall, I have considered myself a liberal. It may be that I came to this decision because my father and mother were very much conservative in thought and I was seeking the ultimate act of childhood rebellion.

But there were other factors involved as well. As I have noted many times before, I am a second-generation military brat and I moved around this country more times than I care to admit during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Those were times of change in this country and I could see the change, even if I was not old enough to realize what I was actually observing. But as I looked around at what was happening, I began to see conservatism as a desperate clinging to the past and the ways of old, of holding on to the status quo, and a violent resistance to new and what some would describe as radical ideas.

In 1963 we lived in Montgomery, Alabama. That spring, Colin Chapman and Jim Clark brought the Lotus-Ford car to the Indianapolis 500. Up until that year, the cars that raced in this event were front-engine monsters with Offenhauser engines; they were big and bulky race cars with, of course, no resemblance to the automobiles that we drive today (or even then). What I remember about the “Indy 500” that year was how every so-called expert predicted that the relatively speaking tiny Lotus race car (designed by Chapman and driven by Clark) would be humiliated by the traditional racers of Indianapolis. But, what few people realized was that Jim Clark was a fantastic driver (I think I had seen him on some of ABC television “Wide World of Sports” events) and that his driving skills were on par, or even greater than, most of the drivers that raced in this race.

Were it not for some problems in the pits that year and a misunderstanding of the rules of the race, Clark would have won the race (he finished 2nd in a very close race; he ultimately would win the race in 1965). But I was fascinated by the change in design and how the tradition bound US auto racing establishment wrote off the cars before even seeing what they could do. As two websites (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A827598 and http://www.ddavid.com/formula1/chap_bio.htm) point out, racing in America was technologically stagnant and woefully behind the times. And while American racing began to change following the 1965 Lotus victory and the cars that race at Indianapolis are linear descendants of those first Lotus-Fords, I don’t think that we can say the same thing about the American automotive industry.

Earlier that same year, George Wallace was inaugurated as Governor and defiantly announced that segregation would be a part of Alabama life. Even though I am white, the rules of segregation affected me (perhaps not as much as it did black students) and I began to question the rules of society. We would move from Alabama to Colorado that summer but would be back in the south, living in Tennessee in 1966 but the rules of society had not much changed. I have written before about the nature of segregation and its affect on all the children of the south, so I will not spend much time on that point here.

And, as the Civil Rights drama unfolded around me in Memphis and the shadow of the Viet Nam War passed over my life, I continued to see conservatives speak with the same tired rhetoric and an adherence to the status quo while liberals sought change and equality. While the town where I was an undergraduate was very much a conservative rural part of Missouri, the campus ministers were very much in the forefront of bringing change to the area. It was the campus ministers who gave me hope that there was possibility in life and it further brought about my thoughts about what liberals and conservatives were and should be.

And while I am beginning to question what many liberals are doing in today’s world, I still see conservatives as opposed to anything that disturbs the status quo or suggestive of new ideas. I still see conservatives as longing for the old days, no matter if they were good or bad.

It has been long noted that if you presented someone with a copy of the Declaration of Independence without references to 1776 or King George and asked them to sign it, they probably wouldn’t do so. What would happen if we were to present the first reading for this Sunday (Acts 4: 32 – 35) without any Biblical reference to the people and ask them what they thought it meant.

The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.

And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.

Without a doubt, I think it would strike the reader, especially conservatives, as “socialism” and not a very good idea.

It strikes me that one of the problems with the modern church, and Christianity in this country, is that we have forgotten what the early church did and endured. We confuse the corporate church of today with the real church and the message that it once presented, a message that threatened the very structure of society, not because it was dangerous but because it was radical and went against the status quo.

For many people, the image of the church is one of “old” people who still sing the same hymns from fifty years ago and are aghast at the idea of “modern” music in a worship service and who still use the same format for worship that was used when they were young. The church itself is seen as the monolithic corporate body that found Galileo guilty of heresy and refused to admit that perhaps the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of the Solar System. We see it in the battles to force teaching of “intelligent design” as a viable theory of science in the biology classroom today.

For me, the battles that conservatives fight (be they political or religious) are battles of control, of saying that “I know what’s best for you when it comes to thinking and I am going to tell you what to say and think”. There are those who will tell me that the liberals of today will say that as well and they may be right. But conservatives make it sound as if the world will come to an end if liberal thoughts are allowed to pervade this world or if innovative ideas are allowed to develop.

Now, I am not going to let liberals off the hook that easily either; when you dismiss the beliefs of Christians, even if their beliefs are a little off, then you are as close-minded as those you dismiss.

Keep in mind that during the period that we have come to call the Dark Ages that it was the church that was the repository of knowledge and the keeper of the books that lead to the Renaissance. I find it very disturbing that many liberals dismiss Christianity (and other religions) as superstition. I find it disturbing that many publicly proclaim that there is no God and those who believe in God are fools. It reinforces the idea that they are just as set in their own ways as those they seek to ridicule and dismiss. And while I will accept their desire to not believe in God, I must ask what it is that they do believe in. For you cannot have a life in which everything is empirical and there is no belief. There may be those who have removed emotion from their lives and live only according to pure logic, but it is a life devoid of laughter and crying, of joy and wonder.

And to the point of today’s Scriptures, I find it confusing that someone can call themselves both a Christian and a conservative. No doubt, it is possible that one can be both but when there are people in need and your words speak against helping, for any reason, when you speak of war when Jesus spoke of peace or when you put the blame for a person’s poverty on the person instead of the system, it is hard for me to see you as a Christian.

When Jesus started His mission, He announced that He had come to bring health to the sick and relief to the oppressed. Jesus was a radical from the very beginning of his ministry and I don’t see how you can be a conservative and accept that idea. To bring health to a nation where there was no healthcare, to offer homes to the homeless, and to bring relief are very much liberal ideas in a world where it is everyone for themselves and what I have is mind and no one else’s.

I will be honest and say that when I hear someone tell me that the Gospel message is to make disciples of all mankind I cringe. I do so because they often say it in terms of finality. And the history of civilization is marked by those who felt that if you did not accept this Gospel message willingly, then you would accept it by force. Yet, Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him; the Twelve followed at His invitation and those who saw and heard the words followed but not by force.

As is the case in so many instances, we have come to accept one translation as the true translation. But one translation of the words that Jesus spoke (and I am borrowing from Clarence Jordan, another Southern Rebel in the liberal sense) is that we are to show the world what it is that Jesus did and can do.

The Gospel reading for today speaks of those who believe in Christ, not because they had seen the Risen Christ but because of what others had done and said. John repeats essentially the same message; it is what others see and hear that will lead them to Christ. Unfortunately, when you have a group whose words and actions run counter to the message of the Gospel, it is very difficult to bring them to Christ.

When I was in college I was involved in the Civil Rights movement on campus and the anti-war demonstrations (much to the chagrin and consternation of my parents). I did so because I believed that the causes were right and just. It was through my reading of the Scriptures and my own life that lead me to that view. But somewhere along the line, I came to think that it was those good works that were going to save me from sin and death. But it was pointed out to me by a liberal United Methodist pastor that I could not get into heaven by proclaiming to be a Christian yet not believing in Christ. It is by the Grace of God and our belief in Christ that we are saved, not by the good that we do. But in proclaiming that Christ is our Savior, we must work to bring about what He first proclaimed. Good works are not the admission ticket but the natural and expected thing of one who professes Christ as his personal Savior. Anyone can do good works but that alone is not sufficient to get one into Heaven if they also do not believe in Christ.

When the Baptizer began to prepare the way, he called for repentance; when Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee, He called for repentance. Repentance is not just saying one is sorry for what one has done in the past; repentance is the act of changing one’s life and beginning anew.

The people will see you proclaiming to be a Christian but if your life is still focused on the “rat race” and your concern is for yourself and not others, if you hold onto the status quo and deny others the same opportunities that you have, then it will be very difficult for them to see in you what is seen in Christ.

The problem right now is that there are truly no innovative ideas being developed and there are no creative solutions to the problems that this world faces. Everyone, be they liberal or conservative today, seems as stuck in their own old mindset and, just as the Indy cars of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were quickly outclassed and outperformed by the new cars of the 1960’s, likely to go the way of dinosaurs. And unless better alternatives are offered, this society, this civilization will not continue the progress forward that it has made up until this point in time.

The alternatives will only come through Christ and a new life. I may be a voice in the wilderness but I hope this is a call for others to speak out against injustice and inequality, against the lack of healthcare and educational opportunities in this country, against war. While my main blog is and will always be “Thoughts From The Heart On The Left”, I am also a contributor to the RedBlueChristian blog. And as it turns out, I may be the only “blue” member. If you have a blog and consider yourself to be of a similar nature, you are invited to join this group and post your thoughts (leave a comment to this piece and we will follow up).

If you do not blog, then I encourage you to do what Jesus told Thomas that day in the Upper Room so many years ago, show the people that Christ has risen so that they too will believe. Show the people by working for the same things that Christ worked for and be proud that you are a Christian and a liberal.

————————————–

Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Holding the Key to Tomorrow


This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Easter,  27 April 2003.  The scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2: 2, and John 20: 19 – 31.

This was also Heritage Sunday.  For those that don’t know, I came to the United Methodist Church through the Evangelical United Brethren Church, so this day has some history for me as well.

——————————————-

The significance of this day is perhaps of greater importance to me than it is to any of you but that is because my heritage, how I came to be a member of the United Methodist Church, is a little bit different than your heritage. For the church in which I was confirmed in and was a member during my high school years was an Evangelical United Brethren church.

Like so many others, I attended the church closest to home and when we lived in Aurora, CO, that church was the 1st EUB of Aurora. Now that was its official title but to tell you the truth, it was the only EUB church. There were other EUB churches in Colorado and throughout the country but all were small congregations in a relatively small denomination.

The Evangelical United Brethren church was itself the merger of two smaller denominations, the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren Church. Both denominations began in the 18th century as spiritual renewal movements in rural Pennsylvania. Inspired by the Methodists revival, the United Brethren and Evangelical Churches held to the centrality of biblical authority, justification by faith, the church as a nurturing body, sanctification, and the application of Christianity to the social context. With so much in common with Methodists, these two churches were often called “German Methodists.”

Born in a time of great spiritual renewal, the early Evangelical and United Brethren Churches did what very few of the early American churches, including the early Methodist Episcopal churches, were not doing, that is, addressing the needs of German immigrants for spiritual renewal and a renewed vision. Like the early church of Acts, there was a need for a community, a place where one could find friendship and help and a place where one’s own spiritual needs could be ministered. The heritage of the two churches, like the early Methodist church, came from the simple yet profound faith of ardent seekers after God. Those who made the early churches such a powerful spiritual force in this world turned their backs on the ways of the world to serve with a full will. They were persons of integrity, and the holiness of their lives imparted to them the compelling strength of quiet power.

As we celebrate our heritage of over two hundred years, we are faced with a challenge. In a world where outward strategies and institutional forms can and should change, how do we maintain the values expressed by the church of Acts and repeated by the early churches of America?

We see what the early church did, gathering together as a community of faith in order to care for each other. The gathering of the first bible study group led by John and Charles Wesley, the Holy Club at Oxford University, was an attempt to maintain that sense of community expressed in Acts. The founding of churches in this country, from the very beginning, was to give those a sense of stability and spiritual growth to the immigrants of the country.

But, as much as this was done for community, it was also done in the name of faith. It was done so that the faith of the early church members, both of the New Testament and in our own American history, could be shared with others seeking peace in a world of turmoil. It was the faith of the early church founders, not the works; it was the faith of Philip William Otterbein, Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm and the Wesley brothers and not their works that produced the denomination that we have today. And it will be faith that carries the church into the coming years. That is the central point Jesus made to Thomas.

Thomas needed confirmation that the resurrection was indeed true. But, as Jesus pointed out, there would be countless others whose belief in the resurrection and in Christ would come through faith alone. Nothing that is done in the present will help anyone come to know Christ unless it is done in the name of faith. As John said in his first letter, it was the fellowship of faith that brought people together in communion with Christ. But without the fellowship of faith, it would be impossible for others to share in the true knowledge of the Christ.

And that is the challenge we face today. For if we forget that we are here today because of the faith of others, it will be very difficult for others to be here in the future. It is right and proper to remember the heritage that we have, but if all we remember is our heritage, we will forget why we are here. The noted American anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, once said,

“The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.” (Loren Eiseley, American anthropologist (1907 – 1977) – quoted in the “today in History” newsletter for 24 April 2003.)

I speak with pride of my heritage as a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church, for through that church in Aurora I came to know Jesus Christ as my own personal savior. I came to know the fellowship of the brethren, even well beyond the days I lived in Colorado. When I started school in Kirksville back in 1966, I could have attended Faith EUB. But it was too far to walk on a Sunday morning and without ready transportation I chose to walk to 1st Methodist Church. Thirty years later, I did get a chance to attend and preach at Faith Church and I related to them why I did not come back in 1966. Afterwards, one member of the church came up to me and said, “You should have called. We would have come and gotten you.”

I cannot speak to the demise of the Evangelical United Brethren church as a denomination. Even as I was a teenager working on my confirmation assignments, it was a dying denomination. Merger with the Methodists was perhaps the only way that many small churches would remain open. But I know today that there was opposition to the merger. Those in opposition feared that the merger would cause them to lose the traditions of the old church.

In one sense then, I should be glad that the merger took place. For one of the traditions in some of the old EUB churches was that once a year the pastor give a sermon in German. And though I have a German heritage I cannot speak German and I would have a difficult time meeting that requirement. Fortunately for me, First Church in Aurora did not hold to that tradition. And even my family, though they still cannot understand why I do not like sauerkraut, have forgiven my forgetting of the old ways.

But failing to hold on to the old ways would have kept me from the ministry. And when one holds on to the old ways, holds on to the past, it is impossible to move forward. Just as I speak proudly of my EUB heritage, you know that I speak with pride of my Southern heritage. But I do so knowing that part of that heritage should be forgotten or left alone. If I am proud of what was, I would be blind to what occurred and my pride would be superficial. John made a point of speaking about those whose pride took the place of humility. “If,” John said, “we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1: 8)  He further added, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him (speaking of Christ) out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1 John 1: 10)

As we look back in pride to what we have, we must somehow look forward to where we are going. There are those who come to church today seeking the support present in the early communities of faith. But they do not find it in many churches because the churches are more concerned with the maintenance of what they once were or what they are now. It goes a long way to explaining why the more fundamental or charismatic and Pentecostal type churches show a growth in membership while the more main-line denominations, including the United Methodists, show a decline. In those churches where membership is growing, there is a clear and demonstrated expression of one’s faith, one perhaps not easily seen in the churches with declining memberships.

John, in his letter, spoke of walking in the light. He spoke of the members of the church knowing what had happened on Easter Sunday so many years before and how the people of that day passed that knowledge on to others through their words and their actions. His was a statement that it was the participation of all in the expression of faith that brought people closer to Christ.

We have come together today to celebrate the heritage of those who walked the same path that we do and in whose victories in life we celebrate. But we cannot simply stop the walk, for we have an obligation to make sure that others will be able to walk along the way as well. It may be a terrible cliché but we do hold the key to tomorrow. John Newton wrote that it was grace that “brought me safe thus far and it will be grace that lead me home.” The grace given to us is given to us because of our faith, not what we own or where we live or where we worship. And so it is that the key to tomorrow will be the same as it was for those who walked before us, our faith.

Our celebration today is the celebration of the faith of others, who believed that Christ died for their sins and who believed that they should work hard and be faithful so that others would come to know that most fundamental of truths. Our celebration today is also a celebration of the faith of those who are yet to come, who will come to know the same truth because we have worked as hard and as faithfully as those before us. We stand before the door of tomorrow, holding the key that opens it. It is the call of Christ to open our hearts that will unlock the door and it is a call today that we are asked to answer.



I Was There


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Easter Sunday; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this morning were Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and John 20: 1 – 18.

————————————————

These are the memories of one of the twelve, Nathaniel Bartholomew, of that day long ago.

There is a spiritual sung throughout the south that asks if you were there when they crucified my Lord. (“Were You There?”). Sad to say, I wasn’t there that day. I, with nine of my friends was hiding; hiding because I knew that the authorities, having arrested our teacher and friend, would pretty soon be coming after each one of us.

And as the political and religious authorities arrested and tried him, we ran away and hid. We had failed our Lord, our teacher, our friend. At the time that He most needed us, we weren’t there. One of us had betrayed him; another had denied Him.

But I was there that Sunday morning when I heard the good news of His Resurrection and it is that good news that I wish to share with you this morning.

My name is Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. I was there from almost the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, of his walk through the Galilee offering a new message, a message of hope and promise to a people forgot by the rich and powerful, the authorities, and even the church. Granted, I should have not been there for I almost dismissed Jesus as another one of those charlatans who wandered the countryside, promising much but delivering little, taking from the people and never returning anything.

When my friend Philip first told me that they (meaning his friends James, John, and Peter) had found the Messiah and that he was from Nazareth, I jokingly remarked that “what good can come from Nazareth?”

You have to understand that we Galileans were considered the lower part of society. The rich and powerful lived in Jerusalem and felt that anyone who did not live there was worthless. And among the Galileans, those from Nazareth were treated the worse. Only the Samaritans were treated worse than those of us from the Galilee. So it was that I first dismissed my friend’s bold claim.

But then I met Jesus and I knew that I was wrong. He told me how he had seen me studying under the fig tree and I knew that the promise of the Scripture was fulfilled in this man from Nazareth (I said then and there that Jesus was the Son of God and the true king of Israel). So I gathered up my books and I began to follow, just as James, John, Andrew, Peter, and Philip followed. Andrew and John had been followers of the Baptizer, the one who spoke of another one who was to come; one who would bring God’s grace to the world.

So with Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Jude, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot we followed. Such an interesting group we were; with the exception of Judas Iscariot, we were all Galileans. We were young and life for us was like steam in an un-popped kernel of popcorn just before it exploded. We understood that we had a responsibility to our God and to our country and, in following Jesus we had the opportunity to meet that responsibility. We had a chance to make our lives count.

It was a troubling time; beneath the surface of joy that we had were many anxieties. You could not always see the troubles but you could feel the greed and hatred, the selfishness and anger, the lust and the hate that existed between areas of the country, between those from the southern lands and those from the northern lands, between the Israelites and the Samaritans, between all the Jews and the Roman authority.

Our country was an occupied country, governed by a tyrannical military government that imposed its own taxes on top of our own. There were only rich people and poor people and each day more and more people sold themselves into slavery to pay their bills.

Yet in this darkness was this promise of hope, this offer of a better life if we would but choose to follow Him. So for three years, we followed and listened; for three years we heard the words that brought joy and comfort to a people burdened by an uncaring society, increasing taxes, and domination by Roman. For three years, we watched Jesus bring life to the limbs of the lame, sound to the ears of the deaf, and light to the eyes of the blind. For three years we watched one man bring hope and promise to a people cast aside by society and their religious leaders.

In this unfriendly world, the only way many people thought that they could survive was through corruption and abuse of power. You would have thought that the priests and rabbis who ran the Temple in Jerusalem would have cared for the people of Israel; that is what our rabbis at home had taught us. The Torah was very specific about the need to care for people, to show concern for the sick and infirm, the poor and destitute, those without possessions. But when we would go to the Temple, we had to pay the tax and our own coins, carefully saved for that once a year trip to Jerusalem, were judged worthless by the Temple authorities.

“Go to the money changers and get the right kind of money,” they would tell us. And Matthew, wise to the ways of the tax collector and the money changer would catch them every time charging more than was fair or equitable. And we wondered how many men, women, and children came to the temple to bring a sacrifice but were turned away because their lamb was imperfect or their dove had a spot on its wing and no one would sell them the “right” animal without trying to take advantage of the situation. Even with the tricks that Matthew showed us, it was still impossible to help all the pilgrims, even more so when it was clear that the High Priest, his priests, and the rabbis, all benefited from the graft and corruption. We could see Jesus getting angry but we never knew how angry it was going to make Him.

And one day, Jesus sent us out into the world, telling us to preach the Gospel and heal the people. And much to our surprise, we could and did heal the sick, bring voice to those who could not speak, sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf.

But then, one day, things began to change. Mary and Martha received word that their brother Lazarus was dying. We hurried back to Bethany but it was too late; Lazarus’ body was sealed in the tomb. Yet Jesus stood before the tomb entrance and commanded that Lazarus walk out of the tomb. And then Jesus began speaking of His own death. We had never heard those words before and they were confusing. Peter told us about the day that James, John, and he went with Jesus to the mountaintop and there saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah and how Jesus had commanded them not to say anything.

Peter, being Peter, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah but then when it became clear that Jesus was speaking of his own death tried to shut Jesus up. It was a very confusing time.

And then came last Sunday. Jesus told us to go to a house in Bethany and get a small colt in preparation for a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Finally, after three years of traveling across the countryside of the Galilee, we were going to get some recognition.

And the people cheered, shouting Hosanna and waving palms. Three years of frustration, three years of wandering the back roads of Galilee vanished in the shouts of the people. But the joy of the people quickly disappeared. They wanted an earthly king, one who would lead an army and drive out the Romans. Like us, they did not understand the message of the kingdom that Jesus taught.

On Tuesday we went to the Temple and three years of frustration and anger came to a head. We have never seen Jesus angry but here He was, a man who preached peace, throwing out the money-changers and the sellers who overcharged the people. It was clear that what mankind had done in and to the Temple was never what God had intended and Jesus made it clear that things would be different in the coming Kingdom.

We then began to make preparations for the Passover meal. This was to be the best Passover meal we had ever celebrated as a group. Together with our families and our friends, we were celebrating the proclamation of Jesus as our Savior. But this meal, of celebration and promise, quickly became a meal with the pall of death hovering over it.

First Jesus announced that one of us, one of those who had walked with Him for three years, would betray Him that very night. Who among us would betray the trust and friendship that three years had developed? We did not know? Jesus told us of the sign of betrayal but we did not understand what He meant.

And then He told Peter that he, Peter, would deny Him not once but three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. Peter, being Peter, of course denied that and said that he would never do such a thing. Those very words, we would find out, would come back to haunt Peter for many days later.

And then Jesus spoke of His death. He offered the bread and called it His Body, broken for our sins. He offered the wine and called it His Blood, shed for our sins. The Passover is a celebration meal and yet He was talking of death. It was not the first time He had spoken of His death and yet we still did not understand.

As was our custom, we went into the garden to pray that night. Unfortunately, the hours, the days, the week had taken their toll and we fell asleep. Twice Jesus woke us up and encouraged us to keep watch and pray with him but we could not. So, at the hour of His betrayal, none of us saw the authorities coming with the soldiers to arrest Him. And we ran away and hid.

Why shouldn’t we have run away and hid? We feared for our lives. We felt that after the authorities dealt with Jesus, they would come after us and we did not want to suffer the same fate that Jesus was going through.

As we gathered in hiding, we discovered that Peter and Judas were missing. Some of our friends told us it was Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Why would he do this? Did he get angry because the woman bought that oil and had washed Jesus’ feet the week before? Or did he think that Jesus was going to lead an armed revolution against the Romans and the establishment?

Whatever the reason, it was clear that he no longer believed in Jesus as we did. But he didn’t expect the authorities to try Jesus and condemn Him to death. We know that he tried to give back the monies that the authorities had given him in exchange for his betrayal. And now he was missing.

And where was Peter? Peter had tried to stop the authorities from arresting Jesus, taking a sword and striking one of the soldiers and cutting off his ear. But Jesus stopped Peter from further action and then healed the soldier’s wounds. How interesting was it that on the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus took care of an injured soldier who took part in the arrest.

Peter didn’t go with us and we figured that he was going to try and find a way to help Jesus escape. But each time that he was spotted he denied knowing Jesus. And when the rooster crowed on Friday morning, Peter had denied Jesus not just once but three times, just as Jesus said he would. And now Peter was not with us.

Everyone knew that the trial that night was a sham and the people who were cheering His entry five days before were now turning against him. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. When we started three years ago, the crowds were huge but they soon dwindled as people realized that they were being called to take on responsibilities in the new kingdom that Jesus spoke of. How many times did we see some rich man or some Pharisee come to us in secret and profess his belief in what Jesus was saying but leave disappointed because he couldn’t keep his money, his power or the glory of his position.

I still remember that Friday but only as the worst day of my life. The town of Jerusalem, once full of joy and celebration, was now strangely quiet. It was a dark and cold day with thunderstorms in the distance. And each rumble of thunder almost sounded like the hammer hitting the nails that were driven into Jesus’ hands and feet as the Roman soldiers nailed Him to the Cross.

And we could hear the weeping of His mother, Mary, and the other women in our band of followers over the cackling of the soldiers as they gambled for His clothing. How sad it must have been for Mary to watch her son, promised at His birth to be the Salvation of Mankind, die on the cross. And in the pain and agony of His own death, Jesus again thought only of others as he commanded the care of his mother to John Zebedee. But they could do nothing as He cried out in thirst and pain.

And as the sky turned black, He died, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Because it was the Sabbath, they took His body down. How ironic that we had friends who would find a place to bury our teacher but would not speak out in His time of need.

All through that Sabbath, we hid and wondered when the authorities would come for us. All through the Sabbath, we wondered what we would do. Peter, Andrew, James, and John spoke of going back to the Galilee and begin fishing again. I thought that maybe I could find a school where I could finish my studies but I wondered who would teach me as much as I had learned from Jesus. We all knew that we couldn’t really go back to the lives we had left some three years before but what could we do?

And then this morning, the word came. Mary and Martha had gone to the tomb, hoping somehow to find the body and do what was the only decent and proper thing to do. We knew that the authorities had posted guards around the tomb because they thought they we would seek to steal Jesus’ body. They had even gone so far as to place a bigger stone than usual in front of the tomb to keep us out.

How were we ever going to steal His body? What power did we have? They had shown us what they thought of us and it was clear that they were not going to tolerate what we had to say any more than they had tolerated our Teacher.

But then Mary came running in to tell us the tomb was empty. We did not believe her. It wasn’t that her words were false but how could a man rise from the dead and live again? Even though we had seen it happen with Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, we still could not believe that it was true. Even though Jesus Himself had told us that this would happen, we did not believe it.

Peter and John ran to the tomb to confirm this. And Mary then told us that she had seen Jesus and that He was alive. She told us that she was not to touch Him but that she should tell us to return to Galilee and He would meet us there.

Then, it became clear. Everything that Jesus had said over three years, every illusion or mention of resurrection and everlasting life, every mention of what was to come began to make sense. Jesus did escape from the tomb and the movement that He began three years before was not finished but just beginning.

I was there that first Sunday morning. Despite the efforts of many powerful politicians and religious leaders, I saw that the Gospel message that I had heard and seen take place for three years was to continue. And that is why I come to you today. Because Easter Sunday is not simply the proclamation of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and triumph of sin and death; it is the proclamation that the Gospel message continues.

Over the next few days, many and more of our friends, our neighbors and the disciples will become aware of this celebration. We will gather together on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and be with our friend, our teacher, and our Lord. We will meet Him on the road to Emmaus and He will join us in our groups, wherever we are. And we will prepare to take the Good News that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that there is hope in a world where there may not seem to be hope. We will begin to take this message beyond the Galilee and out into the world..

My friend Thomas and I will begin a journey to worlds we never even knew existed before we became disciples. Like John and Charles Wesley later, I will go to Georgia. It will not be an easy life, but we were told that early on. And though we may suffer, we understand what we will gain.

I leave you today with these thoughts. When I first met Christ, it was clear that my most hidden thoughts of my mind and my soul were open to the One who would send His Son to seek us out. And just as God used Philip to bring me to Jesus, so does He use each one of us to reveal Christ to the world. He will find ways to use us in ways that we cannot understand at this moment; He will give us the words and the confidence that we need at those times when our words and confidence disappear.

And as He Himself said on that first encounter, we will see things that will bring the Glory of God to life in this world. We celebrate today because today we know that Christ has indeed risen. Alleluia and Amen!

So Where Is He?


Here is my message for Easter Sunday, 20 April 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this morning were Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and John 20: 1 – 18.

————————————————

There is no question that I appreciate the technology of the modern age. Among other things, it makes it easier to communicate with people. With e-mail, I am able to write a number of people on a regular basis. With the new cellular technology, my long-distance telephone bill has dropped. Each new technology brings an improvement in the way things can be done. Utilizing the new forms of telecommunication, there are even church services on the World Wide Web.

But there are disadvantages to each improvement. Each way of contacting someone, be it by e-mail or fax or cell phone calls, still does not bring the person next to you. Short of a transporter beam, there is no technology that will enable people to instantaneously be in physical contact with each other. And despite the ability for instant communication, not being next to someone is just not the same. And I am not sure that holding church services on the Internet is the same as having three or more gather in His name.

Another disadvantage to this wondrous world of instant communication is that you get information that you do not want or need a lot quicker and in greater quantities. And there are those who try to be helpful, sending you stuff that they are sure that you need to know. One thing that you quickly learn in the information technology business is that a letter from a friend describing a virus is probably worthless.

The bane of computers is the virus, a nasty piece of programming that takes advantage of some obscure weakness in a computer system and is designed, intentionally or otherwise, to wreck havoc on the recipient’s computer. I have often said, with my tongue clearly planted in my check, that if I wanted to wreck a network, I would send a warning about a virus. Because the recipients of the warning would quickly send out messages to their friends, who would send out messages to their friends, and they would do likewise, until the message networks were filled with messages about a hoax.

For the benefit of those who have received such warnings, and for the enlightenment of those who may in the future feel compelled to send out such warnings, consider the following points:

  1. A virus hoax is a warning message about a virus (or occasionally a Trojan horse spreading on the Internet). Some messages even describe a “Trojan Horse Virus” but there is no such thing.
  2. It’s usually from an individual, occasionally from a company, but never from the cited source. The source has been “spoofed.”
  3. It warns you not to read or download the supposed virus, and preaches salvation by deletion.
  4. It describes the virus as having horrific destructive powers and often the ability to send itself by e-mail.
  5. It usually has a lot of words in capital letters and loads of exclamation marks.
  6. It urges you to alert everyone you know, and usually tells you this more than once in the warning.
  7. It seeks credibility by citing some authoritative voice as issuing the warning. Usually the source of the warning says the virus is “bad” or has them “worried.”
  8. It seeks credibility by describing the virus is spacious jargon.

Any time you receive such a warning, you should be skeptical and verify them before you forward them. There are a number of places on the Web where you can find out what is happening. And, when I get such a warning from someone, I mail the address of one of those sites to the people who have forwarded the e-mail to me; it’s tends to cure the virus spreading.

Now, this is not to say that you cannot get a virus through the e-mail but generally speaking, the virus will be an attachment to the message, not the message itself as many warning imply. When in doubt, never open an e-mail with an attachment from an address you do not know and be wary of attachments whose file name ends in “.vbs” or “.exe”. And always make sure that your anti-virus software is current.

I mention this because it fits within our need to have a convenient conspiracy theory. For some reason that no one has been able to explain, the world loves a good conspiracy and the Internet has given to a rise in various conspiracies theories. Every incident that gathers worldwide attention today will quickly be followed by rumors on the Internet as to its real cause or how it really is something else. You may have even received e-mail warning you of some conspiracy about to happen and how we must respond immediately.

It is our responsibility to determine when something we are told is true or when it is a hoax. The rules that apply to determine the validity of an e-mail warning about a virus apply just as well to determining the validity of a conspiracy theory.

Now the idea of a conspiracy or a cover-up is really nothing new. After Jesus was taken from the cross on Friday evening, the chief priests and Pharisees came to Pilate fearful that Jesus’ disciples would steal His body in order to fulfill the prophesy that He would rise again after three days. Convinced, as they were that He was not the Messiah, they felt the theft of his body would only add to what they felt was a deception. Pilate, ever the politician, agreed to post a guard and seal the tomb.

And after the women had come to the tomb on Sunday morning but finding it empty, the guards reported back to the priests that the body was missing. To keep the guards out of trouble, for failing to have protected the body, the priests paid them off and had the story told that the disciples had stolen the body. Now, in fairness, I should note that this story about the guards only appears in the Gospel of Matthew.

But the other Gospel stories have the women believing that someone else stole the body. As noted in our Gospel reading for today, Mary is weeping at the loss of the Savior when He appeared to her. Her first thoughts were to ask where the body had been taken. Only when Jesus called to her did she realize that it was in fact He and that He had risen from the dead. But her reports of his resurrection were met with skepticism and disbelief. Luke reported that the disciples, upon hearing the report from the women that he had risen, chose not to believe because what the women said bordered on the foolish.

But on their urging, some of the disciples, most notably Peter, went and saw that Jesus had indeed risen. And through the coming days of that week, each disciple came to know personally that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

The quickest way to debunk a conspiracy theory is for the truth to be told. And that is what Peter told the crowd in Antioch that day. He told them that each and every one of them knew the story of Jesus, of his message and his ministry. And they might not have believed it then but they should believe it now, for the disciples were witnesses to the resurrection. And that was the key point, for it was not simply the words of someone but the words of a witness, corroborated by others. Throughout the history of civilization, it has been the testimony of witnesses that counted the most.

Paul’s words are an important part of the nature of the resurrection story, for he was not present at the resurrection as were the twelve nor did he personally know many of the early disciples. Rather, his knowledge of the Resurrection story came from other Christians. And if any should doubt the validity of his story, Paul points out that the changes in his life alone should be evidence enough of what the Resurrection is about. And he closes the passage for today by noting that the resurrection is the same whether he writes about it or someone else does.

But it is now Easter Sunday, 2003, and as we hear the retelling of the story, we have to ask if we are not the victim of some cruel multi-generation hoax or some conspiracy put on us over the years. But we know who the people were that came to the tomb that morning and saw that it was empty. We know that they may have not believed that the resurrection was true at first. But later, they did meet Jesus themselves. And we know of those who did not meet Jesus that first day but did so later and came to believe.

We are more likely to be like Paul, whose encounter with Jesus on the road changed his life. We may know of others whose life was changed when Jesus became a part of it. And we know the changes that came into our lives when we personally accepted Jesus as our Savior. We have met Jesus, perhaps dressed as a businessman because we were in our business attire. Or he may have been wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt because we were doing so. He was just as likely to be found, as He said He would, among the homeless, the sick, the needy, and the oppressed.

When the women came to the tomb that first Easter Sunday they asked, “Where was Jesus?” It is a question that has been asked countless times over the years and the answer has and will always be, “Right here in front of you.” Amongst the people we work with and the people we walk by we shall find Jesus.

The Resurrection is not something that happened once many years ago but anytime some one meets Jesus. And the Resurrection will continue because we walk with Jesus as a part of us. For some, there will be a call, as there was to the people of Antioch to whom Peter preached and to the people of Corinth to whom Paul was writing, to see the truth as it was lived in the lives of others.

You might ask this morning “Where is He?” And He will be right there, with you, in your heart and among those whom you live and work with.

A New Start-Up


Here is my message for Easter Sunday, 23 April 2000, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures for this morning were Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and John 20: 1 – 18.

————————————————-

The recent events on the stock market got me to wondering about the value of things. As the events have shown, if you do not know the true value of your product or service, you will quickly find yourself going out of business. Coupled with the fall in stock values was a note from a newsletter that I get, coincidentally by e-mail, that questioned the values of individuals who have been started these companies.

In that note, the author wonder if the purpose behind these companies was to offer a service or simply provide a vehicle for the developers to get in, make a lot of money, and then get out. This author was pointing out that type of approach was doomed to failure because there was a lack of substance to the business.

On that Sunday morning some 2000 years ago, perhaps on a day not unlike today when it was chilly and cold, the disciples must have been thinking about their efforts of the last three years. For the disciples, the turmoil of the last three days, from their dinner with Jesus on Thursday through the trial and crucifixion on Friday, must have been disheartening. Three years of effort and the hopes of an immediate, powerful kingdom on earth were gone and all they could face was the prospect of opposition from all sides. For Peter and the other disciple, presumed to be John, the writer of the Gospel, though they had been taught and heard from Jesus that the prophecies would be fulfilled, to see the empty tomb that morning must have been extremely disheartening. As Mary Magdalene cried out, “someone has taken our Lord and we do not know where they have taken Him.”

How we measure our worth is a matter of much discussion. Unfortunately, for many people today, worth is measured more in terms of what one has and not what one person is. It is astonishing that the Son of God who, more than anyone else, was free to choose what he would, choose not only a mother and a people but also a social position. He chose to be a wage earner and lose himself in an obscure Middle Eastern village. Jesus chose to lose himself in the daily monotony of thirty years’ rough, miserable work and to separate himself from a society that “counts.” And when it was all said and done, He chose to die in the most humiliating of ways possible. But what was gained was beyond measure.

When John Wesley began his ministry, there was a belief that being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it. If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied. To this, Wesley responded

“Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at?… Is not want of food something worse than this? God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it “by the sweat of his brow.” But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon “curse God and die”? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe.” (From John Wesley’s sermon “Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations”)

Wesley pointed out many times that the Gospel was not limited to a select few chosen by status or financial class but to all.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Jesus’ ministry was that he saw the true worth in individuals. He did not defined people in terms of labels or job descriptions; he saw them in terms of their true worth. When He looked at Peter, he did not see a fisherman but a leader of tremendous potential.

When He looked at Mary Magdalene, he did not see an adulteress but a human being capable of profound love. Her reputation did not keep Jesus from commissioning her to bring the gospel message to the apostles.

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.'”

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to him. (John 20: 17 – 18)

Many times, in his letters, Paul spoke of his own unworthiness. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote,

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15: 9 – 11)

Paul considered himself to be the least of the apostles because he had previously persecuted the church, and as he pointed out in verses 5 – 8, others had see the resurrection of Christ and were better prepared to tell the world. But it was through the grace of God that he was able to go out and preach to the world.

In the first reading for today, Peter spoke of God’s impartiality.

In truth, I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.

Today, as we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over death, we also celebrate the beginning of a new business, one that started that Sunday morning some 2000 years ago. It is a people business built on one concept, that God loves us. The worth of this business is found in two parables that Jesus told his disciples.

In Matthew 13: 44 – 45, Jesus spoke of the value of the kingdom of heaven.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for you over he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13: 44 – 45)

The central truth to these parables is the immense value of the heavenly kingdom outweighs any sacrifice or inconvenience one might encounter on earth. Though the first individual found his treasure by accident, the second found his by a diligent search. No matter how a person is led to Christ’s kingdom, its values and delights are beyond estimation.

The good news of the gospel is not for a certain population nor do you have to do anything special to receive the good news. Simply put, in order to receive the remission of sins, all one has to do is believe — nothing more, nothing less.

To every nation, To every person, the invitation to the kingdom of heaven is given.

And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10: 42- 43)

Paul told the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried and, that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Paul did not originate the proclamation of Jesus that he delivered to the Corinthians; he simply gave the Corinthians what he himself had received. Paul saw himself as a link in the long chain of witnesses to the death and resurrection of Christ. This day, we too become a part of that chain of witnesses, taking the message of the gospel into the world.



Why Did He Do It?


Here are my thoughts for this Palm Sunday, 5 April 2009

————————————————————————–

As we come to the end of our Lenten Journey and our focus turns to the coming days of Holy Week and the events that will transpire, perhaps the foremost question on our minds should be “why did He do it?” Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that the crowd would be against Him and calling for His death by the end of the week?

Now, it is entirely possible that those who called for His death on Friday were not the same ones who were cheering for Him on Sunday. But it is certain that most of those who cheered on Sunday were probably not there on Friday.

And we know that even Jesus had His own doubts about what was to take place as we recall the words from Mark that described that Thursday night in the Garden

They came to an area called Gethsemane. Jesus told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He told them, “I feel bad enough right now to die. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell to the ground and prayed for a way out: “Papa, Father, you can—can’t you?—get me out of this. Take this cup away from me. But please, not what I want—what do you want?”

He came back and found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, you went to sleep on me? Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert, be in prayer, so you don’t enter the danger zone without even knowing it. Don’t be naive. Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”

He then went back and prayed the same prayer. Returning, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t have a plausible excuse.

He came back a third time and said, “Are you going to sleep all night? No—you’ve slept long enough. Time’s up. The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s get going. My betrayer has arrived.” (Mark 14: 32 – 42 – from The Message)

For as much as Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human and it was those human traits that brought forth the fears and doubts that He would be able to complete the task before Him. Too many of us, I fear, let the fears and doubts prevent us from what we are called to do as Christians. In some ways, we are like Robert Jordan, Clarence Jordan’s brother.

Clarence Jordan, as I hope you know, was a Southern misfit. Raised a Baptist in rural Georgia, he came to question the hypocrisy of a church that could sing “Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” on Sunday and yet segregate those same children and their parents on Monday.

In the late 1940’s, Dr. Jordan established the Koinonia Farm as a way of showing the world how to put Christ’s words into action. Needless to say, this integrated Christian community was not well received by the white Christian community. And on more than one occasion, from its founding through the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s, it was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.

After one incident, Dr. Jordan asked his brother Robert (a lawyer who would later become a Georgia state senator and state Supreme Court justice) to be the Koinonia community’s attorney. Robert declined, stating that to do so would destroy his political ambitions and cause him to lose everything, his home, his job.

In challenging his brother to do the right thing rather than that which was expedient, Clarence Jordan reminded his brother of the day they both answered the altar call and accepted Christ as their personal Savior. In response, Robert Jordan said that he followed Christ but only up to a point; to just before the Cross but certainly not to it.

This is how I think too many people are today and the value that they place on this Sunday. They are willing to celebrate Christ’s Kingship on Sunday but they are not willing to go to the Cross on Friday.

Now, Clarence Jordan suggested that his brother should go back to the church where they had first accepted Christ and tell everyone there that he was not a disciple of Christ but rather a very good admirer. Robert replied, in effect, that if everyone who felt like that did what Clarence suggested, there would not be much of a church left. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell)

Clarence Jordan wrote, “It is one thing to enter ‘the narrow way’ of discipline and complete dedication to Christ and the kingdom; it is another thing to keep on climbing this upward trail.” (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan, Chapter 13) We see a lot of people who come to Christ full of ambition and enthusiasm. But when things do not go as they should, these are the ones who stop by the wayside. Perhaps that is why churches who preach the current “Gospel-lite” are successful and why they keep growing.

After all, if you don’t mention what comes next or what is around the next corner, there is no reason to give up or stop one’s journey. If the promise of the Gospel is a fancy car and riches beyond belief while you are on earth, why would you even think of tomorrow and what might lie ahead? The message that Jesus brought implies that the future will not be an easy one. The Good News that Jesus proclaimed involved sacrifice and effort on our part.

We live in a world where there are too many admirers and very few true disciples. We have changed the meaning of discipleship from what it once was into something entirely different. We have taken the translation of Matthew 28: 19 (“go into the world and make disciples of all the nations”) to mean that we can force people into being Christ-followers. But those who are forced to do something will quickly forget how to do that when the pressure is removed. But if we understand that this same passage can mean “make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you,” (from the Cotton Patch Gospel translation by Clarence Jordan) then we can offer people a better alternative to the world around them.

There are admirers of Christ who would close the doors of the church to anyone who is not like them. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.

There are those who say that religion is superstition and mysticism and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.

To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is a radical new way of life. It forces us to walk another way.

The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.

Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. He also knew that if He did not go to the Cross Himself, then no one would and the mission that He began three years before would fail.

We are not called to die on the Cross for Christ for Christ died so that we would not have to do so. Yes, there are going to be those who are going to die for Christ in the course of working for Christ (we call those individuals martyrs) but they did not go looking for their death. And those who look for death will be sadly disappointed in the results of their efforts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action.

So why did Christ do it? Why did He enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday knowing full well that he would be arrested, tortured, and crucified on Friday? Because He also knew that on the following Sunday, next Sunday, Easter, that the Promise of the Gospel message would be fulfilled and revealed and that He would conquer sin, death, and the grave. He knew and understood that His death on the Cross on Good Friday would give us the freedom that we seek.

We are not called to die on the Cross; we are called to the Promise of the Resurrection message of hope to the world. But we must understand that Jesus had to die for us first. That is why we have today.