“A Moral Imperative”


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 19 January 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42. This is also Human Relations Sunday.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am Southern born and Southern bred and when I die I will be Southern dead. I am also the son of an Air Force officer and the grandson of an Army officer. As a result, though I was born in Virginia, I grew up in a variety of states and have worked in another group of states. All together, this combination provides for a unique view of society and the world; a view that does not hold to many of the traditions so often associated with the South.

You cannot expect someone who attended as many elementary, junior high and high schools as I did to not wonder why the rules at one school in one state are so dramatically different from the rules of another school in another state. Why is that every kid can go to the same school in Colorado but some kids have to go to one school in Alabama while other kids of the same age have to go to another one? Why is that high school bands in Colorado and Missouri had ample funds (at least, back when I went to school) but high school bands in Tennessee had to scrap for funds? Somewhere along the way, as I was growing up in Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, and Tennessee, I began to question certain aspects of society in terms of economics and race. There are questions that still need to be asked today and have expanded way beyond what they were in the 1960s.

Now, you have to know that my parents were very conservative and this questioning attitude and the actions that I undertook to answer my questions did not always set well with them. But they raised my siblings and myself to think and act independently and to know that 1) we were responsible for our actions, whatever the result, and 2) we would be loved no matter what. And over time, their conservatism mellowed and the views on war and equality began to change.

The Old Testament and Epistle readings for today speak to much of what I feel today. The Old Testament reading speaks of Isaiah seeing no value to the work that he has done at the local level but God telling him, in essence, to look beyond the horizon and see a bigger picture and know that his work does have some impact. Paul speaks of the gifts that God has given each one of us.

I know that the gifts and skills that I have are from God and I know that I have not always used them in the way that best serves God. There are times when it has been clear that my gifts and talents have been squandered and I have not done what needed to be done.

But I know that I have heard, in several different ways, the call to go out into the word and do the work of God. It requires seeing each person, no matter who they are, not in the context of their local setting but as members of God’s Kingdom and as such (and to borrow words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), measured by the content of their character and nothing else, not their race, their economic status, their sexuality, or place in life.

And while I may see the impact of the words of Isaiah and Paul in terms of my own life, I know that they are words spoken to each person on this planet, whomever they may be. Granted, it means that I, along with others, have to tell the people what those words are. It does not mean that those who hear those words must accept them but you cannot determine the path that you wish to walk if you do not know what lies ahead.

We live in a day and age where greed, violence, hatred, and war are commonplace occurrences and where the response to each of these plagues on science is often times more of the same. The Gospel message that offers promise, hope, and freedom is often times cast aside as meaningless and without substance.

The problem is that too many times those who often so proclaim themselves as followers of Christ are among the leaders who promote hatred, greed, violence and war. They do so because 1) they see only the present and the local, not the future and the world; and 2) because that’s the way they have been taught.

And when the time comes they teach what they know without seeing alternatives or options; they have no desire to see beyond their own limits. And one cannot often blame them, for when you teach others to think beyond the present, to think of the future and what might happen, you give them the chance to change the world. And changing the world today is a threat to those in power. 

And if nothing else and whatever the cost, we have to begin changing the world, both in terms of what is done, what is to be done, and how we teach the world.  This is a very frightening thought because it goes against almost everything done up to this part.  In fact, it goes against everything we have been taught but what we have been taught and what are children are being taught is designed to keep those who have the power in power and not open up the horizons of life.

In today’s Gospel reading, there is a transfer of power from the prophecy of John the Baptist to the mission of Jesus. But it is also about what happens to us when we meet Jesus Christ for the first time. Simon, brother of Andrew, comes to Jesus but leaves as Peter, the Rock upon whom the church will be built. Meeting Jesus is a life changing moment. When we meet Jesus, our names may remain the same but our lives do not. We cannot expect that what we will tomorrow to be the same that we did yesterday.

When I selected the title for this piece, it was with the assumption that it had been used at some time in the past. And while it had been used, it was not by the individuals that I thought would have used it. I thought of John Kennedy’s comments concerning the need for a comprehensive civil rights bill in the 1960s and I thought about what Dr. King had said on any number of occasions but neither used the term that I had selected.

I am reminded of the words that Senator Edward Kennedy spoke at his brother’s, Robert Kennedy, funeral, “of how he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

There is a moral imperative in our lives today; it is that yearning in our soul to make sure that all of the people of this world are free and treated equally, that war and violence, poverty and hunger have no place on this planet and that the change that must be made begin with each one of us.

There may be a few who read these words and say that there is no God, there is no Christ, and they will have to determine where that call for justice comes from if it does not come from God through Christ. But I believe that call comes from God and that I have to answer it as such. And I have made my choice to follow Christ and seek to do what I can in His Name to make sure that Gospel message is fulfilled.

The challenge for each one of us is find ways, individually and collectively, to do the same.

Saturday Morning Worship @ Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)


During the 2012 Advent season, we began a worship service prior to breakfast. As the New Year begins, we are going to continue this worship. If you are interested in participating in the worship service, contact me at TonyMitchellPhD (at) optimum.net. I have included the lectionary readings for the Sundays in January so that you can think about this. Because of the time frame, we ask that you pick one of the lectionary readings and prepare your message on that reading. Looking forward to hearing the many voices of United Methodists during 2013 at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Oh, and you get breakfast

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 for soup, bread, and other “goodies”. Come and join us in friendship and fellowship at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

Worship from 8 to 8:30; Breakfast from 8:30 to 9:45

January 5th – Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 12th – Baptism of the Lord – Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22

January 19th – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany – Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11; John 2: 1 – 11

A New Understanding” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

January 26th – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; Luke 4: 14 – 21

Parts of the Church” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

A Matter of Identity


I got a note on Thursday about the possibility of being in the pulpit this Sunday. So I prepared this message. It turned out that I wasn’t needed after all. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10, 10 – 20; 1 Corinthians 6: 12 -20; and John 1: 43 – 51.

There is a certain degree of symmetry, if you will, in the Scripture readings for today. For as a boy of twelve, I heard God calling me. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that it was God for it sure felt like my mother’s elbow jabbing me in the side to keep me awake during the sermon. But the message that I received suggested something else.

And when my family moved that summer that I was twelve from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, I made the decision to pursue the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. In about four weeks, when it is Boy Scout Sunday, I will post some thoughts about that award and what it meant to me then and still does today. But the symmetry isn’t about the call that a boy of twelve received some fifty years ago; it is about the call that boy received a few years ago.

One of the things that I have done over the past few years is “borrow” tricks and techniques from some of the pastors I have worked with and whom I may call friends. Sometimes it is the inclusion of song in the sermon; sometimes it is the use of my background in chemistry and science education. Acouple of years ago, following the lead of a friend, I began to explore creating pieces that centered around Nathaniel Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples and the center of today’s Gospel reading. When I began looking at the history and tradition of this individual, initially skeptical that Jesus was the One and True Messiah, I felt that I had made the right choice.

For Nathaniel Bartholomew (he is identified as Nathaniel in John and Bartholomew in Matthew; we assume that they are the same individual) was the scholar of the group and the one who would go to Georgia to carry the Gospel message to the world. Since I too am a scholar and one who grew up in the South, it made sense to find ways to use Nathaniel Bartholomew in my preaching persona. And while the Georgia that he would travel to was not the Georgia that John Wesley would visit; it should not take much of a leap for a southern boy such as me to put the two places together.

As the saying goes, I am southern born and I am southern bred and when I die I shall be southern dead. But just because I grew up in the south and was raised by a southern born mother, do not presume that I hold to many of the traditions and characterizations that come with the southern label. One of the things that one has to know is that church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began to think about my identity in and with God was a Methodist Church and one of the better known members of that congregation was George Wallace, then governor of Alabama and in the process of putting his stamp on American politics.

For me to say that I am a Southern boy may cause some to think of one of many stereotypes. I will be honest; I could easily be like so many of my classmates of that time and era who still hold on to a view of the world in which one’s identity is predicated on one’s birthplace. But I grew up in more than one place and it allowed me to see the world in many different ways, ways that would allow me to pursue an identity that is my own and not the product of a time or place.

It does not help that I consider my home town to be Memphis, Tennessee. For some, it comes as quite a shock when they find out that I have really never been to Graceland. It strikes many that anyone from Memphis would naturally have been to Graceland at least one and perhaps twice a year. But, while I may appreciate Elvis for his music, and I do know where Graceland is (having been by it on a number of occasions), such is not sufficient for me to visit. Besides at something like $30.00 per ticket, it is not something I can afford to do.

The first thing that Nathaniel Bartholomew said when Philip told him about Jesus was, “what good can come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was never the place to be from and it certainly never fit into what the prophets were saying. Nathaniel’s response was the normal response.

But Jesus changed Nathaniel’s view when Jesus told him that He, Jesus, had seen him, Nathaniel, under the fig tree. Tradition has it that Nathaniel was reading and studying the Scripture so that he would know what to expect when the Messiah did come. Of course, the Messiah’s arrival was not what he expected but then again no one expected Jesus to be the Messiah at first. Jesus looked at who Nathaniel was, not what he was.

And on this weekend, I cannot help but remember that I was a senior in high school the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Nor can I forget that he came to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and, more importantly, for recognition that they deserved better working conditions as well. There was in this country back then, and is still persistent today, a perception that because someone is of a particular race or economic status then they are not worthy of equality. (My thoughts on this date in history are found at “Where Were You on April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day“)

We have in this country an assumption even today that the poor are shiftless and while we should give them something to eat, we better not give them the “good stuff.” And we best not put out our fine china and good silverware because they are only going to steal it. It would be better if we simply gave them something second class and act as if we were doing them a favor. And yet, what did Jesus say about this? Who would Jesus have invited to dinner? It amazes me when someone tastes the food that my wife prepares for the breakfasts that we host on Saturday and Sunday morning and finds out that this is the food the “poor” people eat. I hate to say it but I am utterly but not completely surprised when someone acts as if the world is coming to an end because we are willing to give a good meal to a homeless person instead of just slopping something on a paper plate and expecting them to like it.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians can be used, I supposed, in many different ways but I think he points out that when our lives are superficial, when our relationships have no depth, our lives have no meaning. And if our lives have no meaning, how can we expect to have any future?

Samuel heard God calling not one time but three times. It is not easy to get to the truth immediately. In a world where superficiality is the norm and not the exception, in a world where we have no desire to look at things in depth because it takes too long, we are willing to except artificial as real and false ideas as the truth. There was a note in The New York Times the other day that pointed out that the economic ideas being put forth in New Hampshire last week as the way of saving the economy of this country were actually the reason why the economy was in trouble.

I would also argue that those who call themselves Christian but turn a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and helpless are a reason why this country is in trouble. Right now, the United Methodist Church is seeking to change the direction that it is headed. The numbers say that the UMC will be dead in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, from where I stand, I don’t see the answer that others may see. Because what I see are many churches that are blind to the condition of the people in their communities. Oh, there are food banks in practically every church in town but there are afterthoughts and if people in the churches were pushed, they would tell you that they would rather not have them.

But I remember that John Wesley saw the condition of the people and the response of the church and he worked to change the perception and the outcome. The first Sunday school, the first credit union, the first health care clinic were all products of the Methodist revival of the 18th century. And because John Wesley and those who followed and walked with him choose to go into the mines and the prisons, the factories and the streets, the violent revolution that ravaged France did not occur in England.

If you say that you are a Methodist, then you lay claim to that heritage that changed the world some two hundred and fifty years ago. If you say that you are a Christian, then you claim to follow Christ, to do the things that he did when he walked the dusty roads of the Galilee.

The Old Testament reading is about God calling the young boy Samuel to service in His name. And for some, those first few verses are all that matters. But those who prepared the lectionary also included the next set of verses, verses that are not often read. But I choose to include them today because I am concerned that church is in the same situation today as it was some three thousand or so years ago. There are those who have and are destroying the church; they have taken the name Christ but only superficially. It is not just the television evangelists who would have you send in a couple of dollars for a small vial of oil or a piece of cloth but those who come to church on Sunday and then leave Christ tucked away in a storage closet until they come back the next week.

Jesus promised Nathaniel that he, Nathaniel, would see great things before he was through. And that is a promise that is given to us as well. Just as Samuel was called, just as Nathaniel was called, so too are we called today to follow Christ. We do not have to answer that call but if we are to be who we say we are, we have to. It is a matter of our identity, of saying and being who we are.

By What Name Shall You Be Called?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (20 January 2008).  The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.

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This has been edited since it was first published on 19 January 2008.

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Sometime long ago (and probably in a galaxy far, far away) I started collecting sayings that interested me. (Some of them are listed at “A Collection of Sayings”.) One that causes me to smile is “time is nature’s way of keeping everything happening at once.” Of course, with our new granddaughter, I am reminded that “a child with a hammer thinks everything is a nail.”

When I looked at my collection as I was preparing this piece, I noticed that I had also recorded a saying by Nehru. Nehru, who with Mahatma Gandhi successfully freed India and the Indian sub-continent from British colonial rule, once said,

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

It seems to me that I recorded this statement because it was very similar in nature to the first saying that I ever wrote down. From the Talmud, we read,

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

John Kennedy used this saying as a way of expressing why he ran for President in 1960.

There have been times when I have felt that I was at a time and in a place where I was supposed to be and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. To me, this is a feeling that comes when you are called by God.

Now, I have to be honest. I have never had the life-changing experience that transformed Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus. There are those who have said that you are not a true Christian if you do not have such a born-again experience.

But I don’t think that you have to have a public life-changing experience in order to understand that you have been called by God. To be born again is to understand that your life has a greater meaning through Christ than it does otherwise. It is to understand that there is a time when you are called to do things that only you can do. It will change your life because you will not walk the path you were walking; you will go a different way and you will be a different person to the people you meet.

I began my walk in 1963 when I was living in Montgomery, Alabama. Then I made the decision to seek the Boy Scout God and Country award. I am not sure how many individuals earn this award each year but I would hazard a guess that it is a substantially smaller number than the number of Scouts who earn the rank of Eagle. That is because the Eagle award can be earned by the successful completion of a number of tasks, whereas completion of the God and Country award requires a number of personal decisions that cannot be measured through completion of tasks.

Throughout the period of time between 1965 and 1991, when I gave my first sermon, there were times when I had a feeling that something was missing from my life. There were times in this period of life when I felt that I was lost in the wilderness and each time when that feeling of being lost was perhaps the greatest, I could feel God pulling me back.

It is a feeling that I think Isaiah is trying to express in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 49: 1 – 7). Isaiah knows that God called for him to be a prophet long before he was born. He also expresses the frustration that comes with being a prophet at that time and, in his own frustration probably expresses what will happen to the Messiah when the Messiah begins His own ministry. But Isaiah’s understanding of his situation should be something that is very familiar to each and every one of us.

It could be that your minister or a friend asked you to do something for the church. It might have been a voice in your mind was telling you that you had to do something, that you couldn’t stand by and let the people go hungry or without a home. So you started volunteering to work for a food cabinet or at a soup kitchen. You read about Habitat for Humanity and began using the skills you were taught in shop class so many years ago.

It was a call that wasn’t a shout but rather a murmur. It was like John the Baptist pointing out Jesus to his friends (See the Gospel lesson for today – John 1: 29 – 42). It is out of curiosity that you seek, as did Andrew and Peter, to find out who Jesus was.

You might find that you are torn by this call that you hear. Society says that we are to be paid for our time and effort; society turns a deaf ear on those who call out for help and it chastises those who try to help. We often find ourselves wondering what we will gain if we answer the call and we often do not answer the call because we would much rather have the riches of the world than the riches of the kingdom.

But Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9) somehow echo in your mind as well. We find that the work that we do will strengthen us and that we grow each day that we answer the call. Once, we were afraid to answer God’s call because of the ridicule that it would bring. We were also worried that we would turn into some mindless automaton following some tyrannical church leader.

But we find that as we work and as we study, we grow. Our lives slowly change and we become different. People say that we look the same but that we are somehow not the same. We are not sure how to answer them but we explain that a call from God is not a life-ending change but rather a life-changing beginning. A life in Christ has not restricted us but rather allowed us to grow.

And one day, someone came up to you and say thank you for what you did.

The call to be a follower of Christ is neither as dramatic as some make it out to be nor so subtle as to not even be noticed. Rather, it is a part of your life. The life change will come after you are called, not before. The likelihood is that you are being called right now, by the name that your parents gave you when you were born. All you have to do is stop for a moment and listen, for the call is there and it is up to you to answer. You are called by your name because God knows your name and He wishes you to be a part of His Kingdom.

“Did You Hear?”


This is the message I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.

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A while back someone made a comment to me that I found to be, at the least, intriguing. In conjunction with a discussion about church membership, this person said that the church had failed some of its members. Because of what was transpiring that day, I chose not to follow up on that comment. But now I wish I had.

What can a church do to fail its members? A number of years ago, the husband of one of the parishioners complained that I had not visited his wife while she was in the hospital. Now, whatever the limits are on my responsibilities, if asked, I will visit someone when they are sick and in the hospital. But in this case, I had not been advised, by anyone, that this person was in the hospital. How am I to visit anyone if I do not know that they want to be visited? Did either the church or I fail this family?

I have received a number of phone calls from people in the Peekskill area asking that I, as a representative of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, help them with their rent. Of course, this is something that the church or I are not able to do. Still, I try my best to direct them to resources that might help them. What I have always found interesting is the response of these individuals who have called me. Generally speaking, it is not a polite request for assistance but almost a demand that the church or I somehow relieve them of this burden. One person became almost abusive when I said that I was not able to help them in the manner that they wanted.

Maybe somehow either the church or I fail these individuals but I think not. We all are supposed to help individuals in a time of need but those who make a living seeking out that assistance are not necessarily those that need our help. This is not to say that I will not help someone if I can.

On more than one occasion I have bought someone a meal when they asked me for money for food. I know that Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan has an arrangement with the diner just down the street from the church. If someone comes to the pastor asking for money for a meal, they are directed to the diner. The restaurant staff will provide them with a reasonable meal and set the bill aside for the pastor to pay later. In such cases, if the individual in question does not want to partake of this arrangement, that is their choice.

It is true that in one area, I cannot provide any help. That is the area of professional counseling. My background and my status as a lay pastor do not allow me to go into that area; it would be wrong ethically, morally, and professionally. If someone asks for help in that regard, I will do what I can to get such individuals the assistance that they need.

Those who seek help from the church should receive it, somehow and someway. If what the church can provide is not what they seek, then they need to consider their request. Only if the church refuses to provide the aid, assistance, and comfort that the individual needs can it be said that the church has failed its members.

But this brings up the question of what members can expect from their church. I really and truly cannot say what one should expect from being a member of a church. I know that I have to be a member of a local United Methodist Church in order to be in the pulpit this morning. When I joined Whitesburg UMC in Kentucky and then Fishkill UMC over in Fishkill, I told the pastors involved that it was because I needed the membership in order to contain my lay minister. To the credit of the Gordon Abbott, Bob Richmond, Arlene Beechert-Hood, and Peggy Ann Sauerhoff, they understood and supported me in this regard. You have to ask yourself why you are a member of this United Methodist Church and what you expect from such membership.

I do know that when you joined, you agreed to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I also know that there is nothing in those vows as to what one will get from the church in return. I know that some expect that being a member will allow their children to be baptized and married in the church and that when the time comes, their funeral will be held in the church. But as I have said in the past, I don’t think in those terms. If someone were to ask if he or she or their children could be baptized in the church, I would agree to it. Of course, I would also explain to them that I have to make arrangements for an ordained pastor to assist in the service; the same is essentially true for weddings. But here again, there is an assumption that those making the request will remember that their participation in the ceremony requires their participation after the ceremony is complete.

I am also discovering that there are those who feel that church membership somehow gets one out of spiritual trouble. I think this goes a long way to explain what has transpired over the past few months in terms of Christianity and the secular world.

People somehow think they can add Jesus Christ to their lives. They see Jesus as a rescue boat from the sea of sin or fire insurance to protect them from the flames of hell. Joining the church comforts them. They still go on living their lives according to their own standards, their own desires, and their own wishes.

But our salvation is not accomplished by simply adding Jesus to our lives; salvation is accomplished when we accept Jesus into our hearts and make Him the Lord of our Life. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)  In the words of one evangelist, "being a member of a church won’t necessarily make you a Christian anymore that being a member of the Lions Club will make you a Lion." (From A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins)

As we read the New Testament we will never find Jesus presenting Himself as something we add to our lives, like we do other things. Throughout the New Testament, He never tells people to accept Him and then do whatever they please. On the contrary, He tells them point blank, "Follow me!"

He does come as our Savior but He also comes as our Lord. The message is similar to the two sides of a coin. If you accept the coin, you get both sides of the coin. Jesus will be your Savior but He will also be your Lord.

But we tend to gloss over the first time we might have heard His call to discipleship. I am not sure that many of us have ever experienced the call that Peter, Andrew, James and John experienced. Jesus’ words to these fishermen were simply to "Follow me." And His guarantee of making them fishers of men wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of financial security.

Fishing was a very prominent part of the Israel economy back then. To leave their nets and follow Jesus was to give up everything that one could imagine in terms of financial provision, security, familiarity and identity. To leave their fishing business was to leave their families (which they had) without financial support. Peter later tells others that they gave up everything to follow Christ.

The disciple Matthew did the same when he was called to follow Jesus. In contrast to the lifestyle of the fishermen, who might be crude in manner, rough in speech, and in their treatment of others, one might expect Matthew to be accustomed to the good life. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector so he had financial security that was not dependent on nature like Peter and the others. He had a fixed and consistent livelihood as well as an identity (even if it made him one of the most despised men in town). But he gave up his earthly riches in return for heavenly rewards.

What can we understand from these calls to the first disciples? I think we need to understand that true discipleship does not mean heartless devotion and needless sacrifice. But it also doesn’t mean that all we have to do is claim Jesus as our Savior. Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people believe today and it is what many churches today push.

I think this is why some people think the church has failed them. They are looking for something that is not there. No verse in the Scriptures promises that we will receive abundant material blessings in return for giving up things in God’s name. We are promised that we will receive eternal life. We are not promised that life will be good if we follow Jesus. But in the end, what we will receive will be beyond the depths of our understanding. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)

The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today. Though the servant may feel that he has labored in vain, the rewards for his labor are innumerable, but those rewards are not immediately obvious (in fact, they do not come in the prophecy for four more chapters). But, as shown in verse 7 of today’s reading, in the end kings will bow down before the servant. The way of life will change. We cannot see ourselves as Jesus but as His disciples. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the pain and suffering that Jesus will undergo for our sake. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the humiliation that Jesus will suffer for our sake. But in the end, it will be shown that Jesus will be the Lord over all the earth. The rewards for all that follow him will be there at the end.

These are Paul’s words to the Corinthians. In light of what we know about how the church in Corinth was in so much trouble, it is surprising that Paul would offer such words of thanksgiving. But Paul is focusing his praise, not on the troubled Corinthians, but on the eternally faithful God. Paul is not praising the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches, such as the Ephesians. Instead he praises God who works in them. When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement follows. But when we concentrate on the Lord, even the darkest hours can be filled with praise.

We have heard the words that Jesus spoke that day in Galilee. They have been a part of our life for as long as we can remember. We remember the words of Andrew telling his brother Simon that they have found the Messiah. But in the joy of hearing those words, did we forget that Jesus also told us to follow him?

I may not have answered my own questions about what one should expect from membership in a church. I still don’t know what it was that the church didn’t do to cause a former member to say that it had failed. But I hope that I have heard Jesus calling me and that I have done what He asked of me when He called. I would ask if you heard Him also.



“Who Will Do The Work?”


This was a busy weekend – I gave the message at a Saturday evening worship service that they are starting at the Drew United Methodist Church in Carmel, NY.  (Location)  Their Saturday services are at 7 and you are welcome to come to attend.

This morning I am giving the message at Trinity United Methodist Parrish in Newburgh, NY.  Services are at 8 and 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.  (Location)

The Scriptures that I used in all three services were the lectionary readings for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany:  Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.

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The first thing that you have to know about me is that I am a Southern boy. As the saying goes, I am Southern born and Southern bred and when I die I will be Southern dead. But don’t get me wrong, just because I was born in the South and spent the better part of my life growing up in the South, that doesn’t mean that I bought into all of the South’s culture and traditions. Because my father was in the Air Force, I also grew up in other parts of this country and who I am is sum of all those experiences, not just the ones that come from where I am was born and where I graduated from high school.

But growing up in the South did give me the unique experience of living in a land of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, and even a volcano. Now most people are not aware of the historical evidence of the volcano because all that’s left is a crater in Arkansas where one finds an occasional diamond.

And many people, even in the South, are not aware that the next great earthquake will strike, not somewhere in California, but somewhere south of St. Louis and north of Memphis. And this earthquake is long overdue. This is the bicentennial of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake. This earthquake was one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike the North American continent. It changed the course of the Mississippi River and caused church bells to ring in New York and Boston. It didn’t cause a lot of damage or destruction because there wasn’t a lot of stuff to damage.

Predicting the time and place of an earthquake accurately is still a long way off but there are signs that the New Madrid fault is long overdue to shift. And when it does shift, the damage and devastation that occurs will be on a greater scale that one could ever imagine. There is a sense of false security because the only evidence that there is a fault and that it is still active are the seismographs at the University of Memphis (see Center for Earthquake Research and Information)

It is, of course, a little different when it comes to hurricanes and tornados. Our technology allows us to see the birth of a hurricane off the coast of Africa and track its progress westward across the Atlantic. Each day we are able to make a better prediction of its strength and where it may make landfall.

The same is true for tornados. We have the ability to see and observe the skies and predict where a tornado might form. This, in turn, gives us the ability to warn people in areas where the tornado might go.

But such advance warnings and knowledge of what lies beneath the ground are of little value if we fail to heed the signs and warning. We cannot stop an earthquake, hurricane or tornado but we can see the signs and lessen the damage that may occur. Perhaps it speaks to the human condition that the death and destruction that comes with each of these events is not caused by the event itself but our failure to heed the signs and prepare for the future.

Now, for some, such signs are merely warnings of God’s impending wrath, of His dissatisfaction with what His children are doing on this planet. For these individuals, they are signs of the Apocalypse and the End Times and these individuals rejoice in the thought that with these End Times is a journey to heaven.

But, I will be honest, from the first time that I ever heard this, I had to wonder. If I know that something is about to happen and I do nothing to prevent it, what does that make me? As a Christian, am I to stand by and watch as the world is destroyed by its inhabitants, blame such destruction on God, and then hope that I shall be one of the lucky ones that will somehow magically escape this death and destruction? Or am I to do what I can to make such death and destruction are not the final acts of the human race?

Now, let me say that besides being a Southern boy, I am an evangelical Christian. Just as I am Southern born and Southern bred, I was baptized as an evangelical and I was confirmed an evangelical and I think and act as an evangelical. But just as I may never have accepted many Southern traditions and thoughts, I have not accepted the ideas that so many evangelicals today profess and believe.

I have never been able to accept the idea that my role as a Christian was to force you into accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior. And that’s how many evangelicals see it today; if you don’t accept Christ as they tell you to do so, then you are condemned to a life in Sheol. I know that there are many who see the role of Christians in terms of the Great Commission, to go out and make disciples of all the people. But the fervor that is put into that effort often fails to realize that the word disciple also means student. And students have to be shown what to do, not simply told that they need to do it or else.

Some years ago, I was introduced to the works of Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist minister, theologian, and scholar. He is most widely known for two things. The first is the Cotton Patch Gospels in which he translated the New Testament from Greek into English and phrased in terms of the South. The second was the founding of the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia.

The Koinonia Farm was founded and built as an expression of how evangelism was supposed to work. Now, Clarence Jordan did believe that evangelism required that we tell people of the Good News. It did involve challenging people to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations. But evangelism was more than that.

It also involved proclaiming what God was doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. He argued that evangelism required that we declare the Gospel in both word and deed and we join God to work in eliminating poverty, prevent unjust discrimination, and stand against tyranny.

And if this sounds like the social gospel, that’s because it does. And if it sounds like what caused John Wesley to look at his own church and wonder what was going on, you won’t get any disagreement from me. Evangelism calls us to create the church through which God’s will is done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

And Clarence Jordan did just that. He founded the Koinonia Farm in the late 1940’s. It was integrated at a time when segregation was the norm and the law. And through the efforts of those who lived and worked on the farm (and still do today), it was demonstrated that people of different races and social class backgrounds could work and live together, much to the displeasure of the political and religious establishment. Instead of being seen as an example of what happened when people live and work together in the name of Christ, it was seen and treated as a threat to society and the traditional way of life.

And the opposition came not just from the political and secular establishment but the church as well. It was almost as if the people in the area around the Koinonia Farm (and that would have included a few Methodist churches at that time) thought “how dare they suggest that the words of the Bible have meaning in today’s world! It isn’t supposed to be that way!”

Unfortunately, there are signs around us today that still suggest that many people see the Bible as something to be read and not lived. These individuals would rather treat the Bible as something carved in stone, unchangeable and fixed, than as a living document meant to be applied to life today.

It is almost as they know they have been given that special gift that Paul tells the Corinthians about but which they have no intention of sharing with anyone. Somehow, the fact that the gift of Christ was given to us freely and without reservations, in spite of what we have done and continue often to do, somehow, we don’t want to share it when that is what we are supposed to be doing.

Isaiah speaks of having worked for God all his life and his words should remind us that, having been given the gift of Christ, we are all now workers for God in some way and some form. Isaiah points out the abilities that each of us have been given, to speak out for God. Yes, Isaiah does say that he doesn’t think that he has received much for his work but he is also going to rely on God to resolve that problem. In the end, what Isaiah will do and did will bring the kingdom of God to fruition on earth. And that is the same for us; we have been given the gift, we have been given the ability and the one thing we cannot do is hide the light, the power, the ability that we have been given.

Now, my own ministry is found in the Word and the presentation of the word. In 2005, I began writing my own blog, Thoughts From The Heart On the Left, and I use this venue to express my thoughts and as a way to communicate the Gospel. I am on occasion asked to use that blog as a platform for letting people know of opportunities that allow them to use their gifts.

And this is one such occasion. The United Methodist Church has begun a new project called “Imagine No Malaria”. A child dies in Africa every 45 seconds from malaria. You may recall the “Nothing but Nets” initiative from a couple years back. Something simple as a netting to hang over a child’s bed keeps the mosquitoes off and stops the spread of malaria. The goal of the malaria House Party project is to encourage people to host fund-raising parties to help fight death and disease from malaria in Africa. If you are interested in seeing if this is something that you may wish to follow up on, go to ImagineNoMalaria.org/HouseParty.

There are also things going on at the local level that you may not be aware of. As I mentioned, my own ministry is in the Word and the presentation. My wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen.  It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.  :)

But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do.  85% of the children of Newburgh receive free breakfast and lunch. But these meals are only on school days. On weekends and during the summers, these children may not get much to eat.

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And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.”  This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It is a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists. I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.

So, there you have one international program that you can look into. During the upcoming Lenten School, to be held at Grace UMC, we will have presenters talking about their trips to Haiti, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even Iowa as Volunteers in Mission. There will also, I hope, be a presentation from the Methodist Build organization, a partner with Habitat for Humanity which was created by Millard Fuller as a result of a challenge by Clarence Jordan.

And there is the local church level; the here and now level. When I first began my lay speaking career, I was given a three-church charge for five weeks. And the order of worship had the offering after the message. Now, as a Southern boy, I generally want the sermon to be the last part of the worship so that there is that chance for each individual to respond to the call of the evangelist to give their life to Christ. I was given the impression that the offering came after the message so that I could get to the next church on Sunday.

While that may have been the intent of those churches, the reason that the offering comes at the end is so that you have a chance to respond to the call of the Lord, to do the work of the Lord, to give your heart and soul and spirit to the Lord.

Today, we are doing just that. We are bringing forth our offerings and making the commitment to respond to that call from Christ, first given to Peter, James, John, and Andrew some two thousand years ago. “Where are we going?” and “what are we going to do when we get there?” were the questions that they asked that first day. And Jesus said “Come along and see for yourself.”

You cannot do the work for the Lord without seeing for yourself what you are called to do. This is the time, this is the place to tell the world that I will work for the Lord, I will continue the word.

What is it about the good stuff?


These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 17 January 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 62: 1 – 5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11. This is also “Human Relations Sunday”.

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I didn’t realize that there was a song entitled the “The Good Stuff” or that Kenny Chesney wrote it. But I had heard something with the words “good stuff” in it and I went “looking” for it on the Internet. Then I connected the words that I had heard from a television commercial with his song. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the song or country and western music for that matter. But it does have a lot to do with the theme for this Sunday being Human Relations Sunday and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As it happens, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death in Memphis is Easter Sunday this year, April 4, 2010, and I will be at the Dover United Methodist Church (Location of church) to lead the services. “Nathaniel Bartholomew” will be presenting part of the message; hopefully John Wesley and the woman at the well will join him in the celebration of the Resurrection. More details will come in the next few weeks. If you have not read either “Where were you on April 4, 1968?” or “On this day”, then please do so. It will give you some idea of my thoughts for this particular Sunday.

When you read the history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, you will find that it wasn’t just a strike for better wages or better working conditions; it was also a strike for dignity and respect.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/ )

On February 12th, 1375 workers (sanitation workers and other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% hourly increase (or 8-1/2 cents).

It was this strike that brought Dr. King, rather reluctantly, to Memphis. But he understood that racial equality was very much tied to economic equality, so he came to Memphis. When you consider what has happened to the economy over the past few years, you have to wonder if people really care about equality of any kind.

Banking organizations argue that they are too big to fail and come begging for Federal money to save them. And both the present and the past administrations have blindly given them the money that they have requested. But all this has apparently done is to reinforce the notion that the rich can have what they want and the poor must suffer. The one single aspect of the economy over the past ten years or so is that the gap between the rich and the poor, those with and those without has gotten bigger and it looks like it will continue to get bigger.

And yet we continue to say that we are a Christian nation, committed to the ideals that Christ taught us some two thousand years ago. What happened to the money changers in the Temple? It was well known that they and the tax collectors routinely ripped off the common folk, charging exorbitant exchange rates and demanding more fees than were required or reasonable. Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple to show his anger with their behavior. Yet, it seems as if we merely put guards around our financial system and told the bankers to keep on doing what they have been doing.

When Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, it was for equality, economic, social, and racial justice. Looking back over the past forty-two years, I am not entirely sure that we have changed that much.

Anytime there is a discussion of raising the Federal minimum wage, the conservatives hold true to form and say that this will destroy small businesses and they are opposed to the idea. But, from a business standpoint, what good does it do to allow big businesses to pay exorbitant salaries and bonuses to the upper level executives while the workers are struggling? It is time; in fact, it is long overdue that our discussion focuses on a living wage, not a minimum wage.

I wrote about the living wage back in 2006 when I gave the message “What If?” In it I noted that the city council of Chicago had voted to require Wal-Mart and other similar stories to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with an additional $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart replied that they would pull out of the Chicago market rather than do such a thing. Businessmen always seem to think that paying the employees a little bit more will do more harm than good, yet many companies have no problem giving upper level management ridiculously large bonuses.

I suppose that earning the minimum wage is alright if you can find a place where you can get by on $290 a week or $15,080 a year. Current Federal poverty guidelines state that the poverty line starts at $10,830 for one person, $14,570 for two persons, and $18,310 for a family of three (2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines). But the Federal guidelines don’t consider where you live or how many people are in your family.

Consider the following fiscal data for where I live in the state of New York. (The following data is from http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/states/36/locations)

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year). The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. The poverty rate is typically quoted as gross annual income. In this data, it has been converted to an hourly wage for the sake of comparison. Wages that are less than the living wage are shown in red.

Hourly Wages

One Adult

One Adult, One Child

Two Adults

Two Adults, One Child

Two Adults, Two Children

Living Wage

$10.82

$19.96

$15.86

$25.00

$31.99

Poverty Wage

$5.04

$6.68

$6.49

$7.81

$9.83

Minimum Wage

$7.25

$7.25

$7.25

$7.25

$7.25

These values are reflective of the community in which the person lives. If I go twenty miles north, the living wage for a family of two adults and two children drops to $28.98; if I go twenty miles south, the living wage for the same family goes up to $34.65. But it is more important to note when you consider the expenses for living in this area, a single adult working at the minimum wage does not earn enough to meet his or her basic needs (see the following table on typical monthly expenses). Is this right?

Typical Expenses

These figures show the individual expenses that went into the living wage estimate. Their values vary by family size, composition, and the current location.

Monthly Expenses

One Adult

One Adult, One Child

Two Adults

Two Adults, One Child

Two Adults, Two Children

Food

$237

$386

$458

$607

$756

Child Care

$0

$624

$0

$624

$1,104

Medical

$94

$186

$188

$280

$372

Housing

$901

$1,103

$901

$1,103

$1,103

Transportation

$278

$479

$556

$757

$958

Other

$200

$393

$400

$593

$786

Monthly After-Tax Income That’s Required

$1,710

$3,171

$2,503

$3,964

$5,079

Annual After-Tax Income That’s Required

$20,520

$38,052

$30,036

$47,568

$60,954

Annual Taxes

$1,995

$3,471

$2,943

$4,433

$5,580

Annual Before Tax Income That’s Required

$22,515

$41,523

$32,979

$52,001

$66,534

Typical Hourly Wages

These are the typical hourly rates for various professions in this location. Wages that are below the living wage for one adult supporting one child are marked in red.

Occupational Area

Typical Hourly Wage

Management

$44.49

Legal

$38.54

Computer and Mathematical

$30.81

Architecture and Engineering

$30.69

Healthcare Practitioner and Technical

$30.13

Business and Financial Operations

$27.51

Life, Physical and social Science

$27.17

Education, Training and Library

$23.04

Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media

$20.66

Construction and Extraction

$20.54

Protective Service

$20.45

Installation, Maintenance and Repair

$18.61

Community and Social Services

$18.48

Healthcare Support

$18.48

Sales and Related

$15.68

Production

$14.82

Office and Administrative Support

$14.33

Transportation and Material Moving

$14.04

Farming, Fishing and Forestry

$12.18

Building and Grounds Cleaning and maintenance

$11.77

Personal care and Services

$10.92

Food Preparation and Serving Related

$9.64

These values are reflective of the area in which I live. There are changes in these values depending on where you might live. But it is quite clear that people in certain jobs are not going to make it at their present salary without some sort of assistance. So we might ask “Who gets the good stuff?”

When Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding feast, everyone was surprised because it was a better quality wine than was being served. From some notes I had before, one used the good stuff first and then passed out the lesser quality wine at the end when no one could tell the difference. Yet, when all of the supposedly good wine had been served and more was needed, Jesus turned water into wine and the quality of the wine was better than what the caterer had brought.

Maybe I am wrong about this but it seems to me that when John wrote about this episode in Jesus’ life, he was thinking about the differences in society, the same differences that exist in our society. There is a standard for the rich; there is a standard for the poor and lower class. We see it in the economic strata; we see it in the healthcare debate. No one who has power is willing to say that perhaps all the people deserve the good stuff. To borrow an analogy from modern day sports, this is not about a salary cap or a luxury tax on higher incomes; it is about each person being able to do the job they want to do and receiving a fair and equitable wage, one on which they can support a family.

John Wesley is probably shaking his head in sorrow. All the work that he did for all the people seems to have been thrown away. He probably cries when he sees those ministers with the six figure salaries asking people to send them more money with the vague promise of a greater return. He wonders why they remember that he said it was okay to earn whatever you could but forget that he also said don’t do it through the exploitation of workers or that he also encouraged saving all you could and giving all you could. The good stuff isn’t what you have; it is what you give away.

I know that some will say that the people getting the big bonuses are expecting them and that such bonuses are written into their performance contracts. So be it, but when your company is going bankrupt, are you still entitled to a bonus? Is it ethical for an executive of a company to earn more in a bonus than any of the workers employed by the same company may earn in their own lifetime? The good stuff is not something you have; it is who you are and what you are to be.

This is not about giving people a handout or a free ride; it is not about using Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “God helps those who help themselves,” and calling it Biblical. It is saying “allow us to recognize each others’ gifts and make sure that all have a chance to use those gifts to the best of their ability.”

Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who learn management skills deserve a pay rate almost twice that of those who taught them. Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who serve the food at the restaurant where you eat deserve a salary that is below poverty and 1/3 of what others make. Explain to me that those who do the scut work in hospitals can barely make it on what they are paid and then are ignored by the people who expect the hospitals to be clean when they come to visit.

This is an international issue as well. Terrorism finds its beginnings in overseas factories where workers are paid minimal wages for goods to be sold here in this country.

And while I may be angry at the discrepancy between salaries, the situation that we find ourselves is one which we have created ourselves. We no longer care about the quality of goods that we purchase, though we complain loudly about the lack of quality. All we want is cheap goods.

Our society has become a massive marketing tool. We have even decided that adding the word “Christian” to the label automatically makes it better. Several years ago, someone opened up a restaurant in Memphis and called it a Christian restaurant. It would be run by Christians and it would be a place where you could bring your family for music and entertainment and expect it to be good, clean entertainment (which it was). But it didn’t last long, not because it marketed itself as a Christian enterprise but rather because the food wasn’t that good. If your product is not very good, how can you expect it to stay in business?

And if we call ourselves a Christian nation or one with Christian roots, yet we treat our workers with indifference and disrespect, what can we expect to receive? There wasn’t, to my knowledge, a single member of the Memphis City Council who wasn’t a church-going man. And they would have told you that they believed in Christ and His message. But they had twisted the message to meet their views; they had twisted the message in order to maintain a political and racial divide amongst the people. They had twisted the message and convinced the people that theirs was the message that God intended for us to hear. There are those today who are doing and saying the same thing.

When you treat someone else in a manner less than you demand you be treated, what can you expect in the way of service and performance? What can you expect when you keep the rewards all for yourself? Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis because the city of Memphis had made it clear it did not consider the sanitation workers worthy employees.

The solution is a political one but the answer will not be found in Congress or any state legislature because we have told our Federal, state, and local legislatures that it is alright for you to take money from lobbyists as long as you don’t raise our taxes or put the burden on us; put it on someone else’s back. Politics comes from the people and the people will have to work out the answer; that makes it a social answer as well.

This is not a call for some radical new political party. Others are doing that now and it is simply an excuse for more of the same, of finding new excuses to keep the good stuff for one’s self.

It is, however, a call to stop and think about what you have done and what you are doing with what you have been given. Too many individuals have claimed the good stuff for themselves and are unwilling to share with others. We have seen what greed and avarice have done to our society and the world in which we live. As we move into this new decade, this unwillingness will do more to destroy the world than any weapon of mass destruction would ever do.

It is time that we stop and think about our relationship with God and with others. Our place in this world is determined by those relationships. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to each one of us individually; they put our life in terms of our relationship with God, not our relationship with others. It is a relationship determined by how we maximize the gifts that God has given us and not by the views of others.

In a world where money and power determined status and acclaim, Jesus showed the people of the Galilee that one’s worthiness was truly determined by their own personal relationship with God. Martin Luther King would come to Memphis for the same reason.

To be deemed worthy by God without regard to status is an important distinction. It gives meaning to life far more than any amount of material goods can do. A person will do the best job possible if they know they are respected for their efforts; that is the good stuff. To hoard material things and to measure one’s goodness by that amount of stuff is not; it’s that simple.

But the message heard first at the wedding in Cana and then echoed through the streets of London and Memphis is a message that we are all entitled to the good stuff because we are all equal in the eyes of God. Shall we continue the way that we are headed, knowing that trouble can only result? Or shall we continue the work that began at the wedding, worked through the streets of London and Memphis and ensure equality for all?

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

“Answering the Call”


Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 January 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11.

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By now you know that I got my doctorate for the University of Iowa and that my undergraduate degree was from Truman State University. To fill in the blanks, I would add that I hold a Masters in Education from the University of Missouri and that I graduated from Nicholas Blackwell High School in 1968.

Now, I am not sure that even my classmates would immediately identify the name of their high school alma mater. For the most part, we said we went to Bartlett High School and today that is the name on the building. In the papers, especially the sports section, we were identified as Memphis Bartlett, even though we were not part of Memphis or the Memphis City School system. But we were from Memphis, even if we did not want to admit it.

Your senior year in high school is supposed to be the greatest year of your life. It is the last year of innocence and freedom, just before you step into the world of work or go off to college. It is supposed to be a year of celebration. I say that because it seemed that there were no celebrations for the class of 1968. Yes, the football team had a winning season, going 5 and 4 after a dismal 1 and 8 performance the year before. But Bartlett wasn’t a football school; it was a basketball school and with a front line of 7′ 0", 6’6", and 6’4 and an all-state guard, we were looking to a banner year. The sports writers felt we were the best because they voted us the number 1 team in the state. But we lost in the regional tournament and two years of success were washed down the drain by loses before we even got to state. (It should be noted that in 2000, the Bartlett Panthers won the Tennessee State Basketball Championship, but that is of little consolation to those of us who saw glory in 68). Even the band had an off year. The year before the band accomplished a feat that no other Bartlett band had ever done; we won a band contest. In an environment where our forty-eight member marching band had to compete against bands with ninety-six and one hundred and twenty members, we actually won. But they changed the rules of the competition in our senior year and we returned to the ranks of also performing. The evening of our graduation was to be a night of dancing and celebration on the Mississippi River but it rained and the traditional senior party never really developed as it had for countless other Memphis high school graduating classes.

And there was another event in 1968 that tempered the celebration of a senior year. It was the same event for all the graduating classes, be they in Shelby County, Tennessee or here in Putnam County, New York. But it was a little different because it happened in Memphis and we lived in Memphis. Martin Luther King was shot to death in Memphis.

Dr. King came to Memphis to aid the sanitation workers in the fight for better working conditions. It is my understanding today that he initially didn’t want to come to Memphis; he was working on something bigger and he did not want to be taken away from those plans. But it was pointed out to him that you could not work on the grander and much broader plans if you ignored the small details. So he came; perhaps reluctantly, but he came.

Now I will admit that back then the situation involving the sanitation workers was not one of my priorities. My mind and heart were some 700 miles away in Kirksville; all I could think about during my two years at Bartlett was the return each summer to Kirksville and the college career that was developing for me there. I can also say that I have no idea what any of my white classmates were thinking in those days prior to Dr. King’s death. Some, I am sure, were totally unaware of what was going on; others, perhaps in the majority, thought Dr. King had no business coming to Memphis and "meddling" in a Memphis matter.

I do know that ours was a society split by race. The divisions were evident in everything we did in school. It was not just that we were the number one basketball team in the state; we were the best white team in the state (even if we had one black player on the team and whose presence was, I have always felt, arranged in defiance of eligibility rules). At that time, no Memphis area basketball team had won the state championship; in our junior year, they paired us against Carver High School with the winner going to the State Championship tournament. We could have both gone and improved the chances of a Memphis team winning. But the "powers that be" deemed that Bartlett should play Carver before the state tournament in order to prove a long forgotten point of pride. We lost that game, ending our season. It wasn’t all that bad a defeat; the nucleus of the Carver High School team went to the University of Memphis and in 1972 lost to UCLA in the finals of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. But it was still a defeat and it ended a good season on a sour note.

In sports and society Memphis was a divided city then and it is not much better now. Race, culture, creed, and economic status divided this country in 1968; and today, we are not much better off. We still see people oppressed because of who they are, what they believe, or where they live. The problems of the world make the words of Isaiah that much more prophetic. We cannot stand silent and stand by when others persecute or victimize someone else.

If we are who we say we are, then we can never lose sight of the fact that what Jesus preached, that his kingdom was open to all, his kingdom of spirit and truth was the mortal enemy of systems built on power, greed, oppression, and falsehood.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stood before the people and listed the Beatitudes. He said, "the merciful are partaking of the divine, for they shall receive mercy." We often see mercy as what one in power might extend to a victim in return for gratitude or service. We want our expressions of mercy to make us feel good; we want the recipient to be beholden to us. But that makes mercy cold and condescending.

Jesus made mercy warm and compassionate. As He expressed it, mercy was given but never bartered, never exchanged for something else. Mercy no longer was the act of pitching a coin to a beggar on the street but rather a new attitude towards life. The merciful will no longer see the beggar as a victim but as a brother or sister with whom life is to be shared.

But the sharing of physical resources will always be limited. And the merciful know this. They know that the physical things that they can give will eventually be used up. But the hunger and the thirst will never go away until the soul is fed and its thirst is quenched. Those who have expressed the hunger and thirsting of the soul know this best and they know that they, having been filled and given the water from the well of life to drink, have greater and truer riches.

But if they keep this spiritual richness hidden; in other words, if they see the beggar as the victim to give things to, then they will ultimately lose the riches they tried so long to find. John the Evangelist wrote, "Whoever has the physical necessities of life and sees his brother standing in need and locks the door of his heart against him, how can the love of God stay in him?" (1 John 3: 17)

You will note that today I have changed the order of the worship service around a bit. The order that we follow each Sunday follows what the order of worship that I grew up and have used ever since I started preaching. It puts the offering first and allows the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word.

If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.

But the fact is that we cannot wait until some great and unseen sign appears before us to use those gifts. Jesus went with his mother to a wedding. Weddings then were multi-day affairs. How the wedding was catered was an expression of the financial status of the bride and groom; to run out of wine early in the celebration, as was indicated in the Gospel story, was a major social faux pax.

It may have been that Martin Luther King did not want to go to Memphis; but the situation and the cause demanded his presence. It may be that my mind was elsewhere when I was a senior in high school; but the Lord has asked me to do his work now. Jesus did not want to do as His mother wanted him, saying that it wasn’t time. Maybe He felt that being among friends and relatives were neither the time and place; but he did as his mother asked and the water was changed to wine. He was not being selfish or showing off; the people didn’t even know what he had done. But the work of the Lord, the presence of the Lord is never dictated by time or place. The presence of the Kingdom of Heaven was first expressed among friends and family.

God’s call will come to you in much the same manner. God will not ask you to do great things on the world stage; He may simply want you to make a phone call to friend you haven’t seen in a long time. He may want you to write to a few people who haven’t been to church in quite some time. The call will come in a way that can never be expected. It is clear from the reading of the Gospel that the steward overseeing the wedding feast did not expect such a good wine.

So God is calling you and today is your chance to answer the call.



"Just Doing It Doesn’t Require a New Pair of Shoes”


Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 14 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11.

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When I started attending Truman State University back in 1966, the first thing that I did was transfer my membership from Wright City United Methodist Church to First United Methodist Church of Kirksville. Now, in retrospect, that may have been a little presumptuous of me to do so. Neither my family nor I had any idea at that time that I would stay in the Kirksville area beyond those first three summer months of my college career. But at the time, it seemed a most reasonable decision.

It should be noted that my decision to join 1st UMC was also a practical one. Given a choice, I would have rather attended Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church. Remember this was two years before the merger of the Methodist and EUB churches and though I was a Methodist, it was because I had transferred my membership from the Evangelical United Brethren church. In my heart I was still an EUB and that was where I really wanted my membership.

But as a fifteen-year-old without a driver’s license, let alone a car, if I wanted to go anywhere in the town of Kirksville, I had to walk. And from what I knew about the town of Kirksville, the walk from the dormitories on campus to Faith church was more of a country hike. So, for practical reasons, I attended 1st UMC, even if my heart wanted me to go to the smaller country church.

Some twenty years later, when I was living in Minnesota and just beginning my lay speaking activities at Grace UMC, I had the opportunity to preach at Faith Church, now a part of the UMC connection. I pointed out at that time that I was able to come to Faith through Grace and then I related the story about that first summer. After the service, a member of the congregation who had been a member back then came up to me and said, "You could have called. We would have been glad to come and get you."

It may seem like a little thing but the simple act of choosing a church to be a member of can have lasting consequences. Going to 1st Church gave me the opportunity to meet Dr. Meredith Eller, who along with his wife sponsored me as I joined the church. Dr. Eller was the professor from whom I would take all of my history courses and later serve as a councilor during times of crisis. When I got to see him in his academic robes, I kidded him about how frayed and worn they looked especially when you compared them with the robes of his other academic colleagues. It was then that I learned that Dr. Eller was not only a history professor but also a member of the United Methodist Clergy, serving many of the smaller churches around Kirksville. His robes were frayed because they were working robes, not the traditional ceremonial robes of academia. And today you know what the results of that first encounter with a Methodist circuit rider back then, subtle and unstated as it was, are.

We all have choices to make. Our whole culture is based on the idea of the choices we make. And it is implied in the messages we hear that the choices we make will decide the type of life we will live. To many in school today, life is not about the grades you make or what you learn but rather what you are wearing or what you listen to.

Even Jesus had to make choices. After John baptized Him, Jesus spent the forty days in the wilderness where the devil tempted Him. It would have been quite easy for Jesus to have forsaken all that was before Him and taken the devil’s offer of power and glory. But the power and the glory that devil offered could never match the power and the glory of God’s kingdom and Jesus chose to take the path that lead to Calvary.

At the wedding feast in Cana, the subject of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus had to make a choice as well.

Mary’s forwardness in asking Jesus to help when the wine ran out would suggest that she was in some way related to the family holding the wedding. Jesus and the disciples were there probably because Mary was there..

Hospitality then was a sacred duty. A wedding feast often lasted for a week and to run out of wine at such an important event would have been humiliating for both the bride and the groom. It is likely that neither they nor their families were wealthy and thus, the feast was a "low-budget" one.

Though at first reading it doesn’t seem so, Jesus’ response of "Woman" was one of respectful address. But He was simply stating that now was not the time for public miracles. But while His response would seem to have indicated that he wasn’t going to do anything about it, her actions seem to say that she did expect Him to do something.

This is an interesting passage. It is one of the most frequently mentioned, yet most neglected, stories of Jesus. For one thing it gives us an insight into the relationship between a mother and her son. She asks him to help. He at first hesitates and seems to refuse. She persists, and in the end, Jesus chose to perform his first miracle.

Isaiah’s message was also about choice. Isaiah pointed out to the people of Israel that God chose them. They weren’t picked out because they were the most wonderful people on the earth but rather because they were among the lowliest. And in a time of the Babylonian exile, a time of rejection and humiliation, God reminded them that there would be a time of great celebration and rejoicing.

Paul wrote about choosing and the results of those choices. Paul indicated that if the Corinthians chose to worship other idols, they could not expect much. For the idols that they might pray to were incapable of answering. But if the Corinthians chose to follow Jesus and to accept the Holy Spirit, then many gifts could be expected.

The gifts that Paul refers to are the capacities, spiritual and otherwise, that God gives each of us. It is important to note that Paul speaks of the many ways that the Spirit can be used in us, yet it is the same Spirit that unifies us. But the skills and gifts that are given cannot be given unless we allow the Spirit to come into our lives.

One of the early Nike advertisements for their "Air Jordan" shoes implied that it was the shoes that gave Michael Jordan his wondrous talents and abilities. And it seemed like every kid in America had to have those shoes, no matter if they could afford them or not. But it wasn’t the shoes that enabled Michael Jordan to play the level of basketball that he did. His gift of playing basketball was a combination of talent and drive, things that come from other sources. The problem is that we are never asked to utilize our own talents but rather what others think our talents might be.

Each of us has a gift and each gift adds spice to life and enhances the flavor of the church. One of things that I never quite got used to while living in the dormitories at Truman, and I am sure that you all would agree with this, was the food. It wasn’t always that bad but it was never something that you really looked forward to eating. It was institutional food and always seemed to lack something.

The same is true about the church today. A church that demands the same from all of its members will not be a vital church for it will be missing something. The gifts that each of us have because how the Spirit has filled us are those missing parts.

The world around us asks us to make choices. We have chosen to be here this morning. I know that I am a Methodist today not only because I saw in the Methodist movement how society could be affected because of how it allowed me to related to God. There came a time when I found it difficult to get up on Sunday and make that walk of ten or fifteen blocks from the campus to First Church. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go but rather that I didn’t want to dress up. And back then I thought that wearing a coat and tie were an integral part of church attendance. Now, of course, I do it without hesitation but back then, I was looking for ways to go to church in blue jeans and tennis shoes.

I could have gone to the Newman Center for morning services for I need that priest there was, in the vernacular of the time, "cool" and he wasn’t offended by casual attire. But I also knew that he wouldn’t let me take communion because I wasn’t Catholic. And somehow I thought that was wrong. But those were the rules that he worked by and, if I wanted to attend his services, I had to play by his rules.

Those aren’t the rules of the Methodist Church and I hope they never are. As will be said shortly, communion in the United Methodist Church is an open table. You come to the table of your own choice and only you can prevent yourself from coming. All that is asked is that you open your heart to Christ.

If we are to be true to our heritage as Methodists, then we need to realize that the words that Mary said to the servants that day in Cana apply to us today.

Mary told the servants at the wedding to "Do what he tells you." The early Methodist movement also produced a community that transformed their world, "doing what he told them." They visited the prisons of their day, formed schools, fed the hungry, opposed slavery, and prayed unceasingly because that is what they felt was the way to spread the Gospel.

The call for us today comes in part from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. From the Book of Worship comes the following prayer,

We remember the conviction of Martin Luther King, Jr. that "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Therefore, let us pray for courage and determination by those who are oppressed.

We remember Martin’s warning that "a negative peace which is the absence of tension" is less than "a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world may cry out first for justice.

We remember Martin’s insight that "injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." Therefore, let us pray that we may see nothing in isolation, but may know ourselves bound to one another and to all people under heaven.

We remember Martin’s lament that "the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are." Then let us pray that neither this congregation nor any congregation of Christ’s people may be silent in the face of wrong, but that we may be disturbers of the status quo when that is God’s call to us.

We remember Martin’s "hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." Therefore, in faith, let us commend ourselves and our work for justice to the goodness of almighty God. (From The United Methodist Book of Worship, page 435-436. The quotations were "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. The litany was written by W. B. McClain and L. H. Stookey.)

The choices that we make have lasting consequences on our lives. The effects that we have on others are felt long after we are gone. We don’t need a new pair of shoes in order to do the work of Christ in this world. All we need is an open heart and a willingness to let Christ in.

It’s Not A Job, It’s An Adventure


This is the message I presented on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20), 1 Corinthians 6: 12- 20, and John 1: 43 – 51.

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It should not come as a surprise to you all that I am a fan of the 70’s cartoon show, “George of the Jungle.” For those of a more modern era, this was the cartoon show on Saturday mornings that was the basis for the movie of the same name. As with most of the Saturday cartoons, there were a number of selections and one or two starring other characters. One of those characters was Super Chicken. As with all super characters, he had a faithful sidekick, Fred.

Invariably, as Super Chicken was saving the world, Fred would get run over by a truck or hit with a wrecking ball or some other physical disaster that would leave him beat up and bedraggled. But just as he was complaining to his boss about the unfairness of this (after all, wasn’t it Super Chicken who was taking all the risks?), Super Chicken would say “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it!”

But I would hope that such thoughts do not creep into your mind, especially if you are one of those who we honored this morning with the installation of officers of the Administrative Council and members of the various committees. Rather, borrowing from and with my apologies to the U. S. Army, I would hope that you see the task before you as more of an adventure and not just a job that has to be done.

Whether it is serving the church or some organization, leadership roles have taken on a different meaning in the past few years. To some, being the leader of an organization is a matter of honor and pride but it is up to others to do the work. Some see that the position means that they are the only ones capable of doing the job and that they have to do it alone. Somewhere in the middle is where I think leadership falls.

Yes, it is a matter of honor and pride that other considered you worthy of the position that you were asked to take but that same honor and pride should demand that you lead others in the work that must be accomplished. But, by the same token, if you do not involve others in the task, if you feel that you alone are the only one who can complete the yearlong tasks, you will quickly find yourself burned out and not willing to serve the next time you are called.

When it comes to leadership, I think back to a saying that John Kennedy used to explain why he was running for the president of the United States back in 1960.

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud)

But how do we know when it is our time? What must we do to insure that we know when we are being called to serve? Knowing when it is our time to serve requires that we be ready to serve when called, that we are prepared to serve when called, and to know when we are being called to serve.

Philip told Nathaniel about Jesus but Nathaniel, having studied the prophecies, believed that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Some commentaries make Nathaniel comment about anything good coming out of Nazareth as a put down on the people of Nazareth but it was more a statement of what Nathaniel’s understanding of the prophecies. But when Jesus showed that he knew who Nathaniel was and that He knew him before this encounter, Nathaniel quickly and unhesitating acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. And like the others, Nathaniel quickly joined in following Jesus.

That Jesus was indeed the Messiah was that reason that He knew of Nathaniel’s character long before Nathaniel knew that Jesus was the Messiah. It was the manner in which Jesus could describe Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” It was also the basis for Jesus saying that great things would come to pass “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

It was Nathaniel’s character that enabled him to be chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve. It is a person’s character that is, in part, discussed in the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians today.

Granted, reading this passage by itself may not seem to fit into a discussion of leadership and who gets picked to serve the church. But when you look at all of 1 Corinthians, you see that Paul is urging the church in Corinth to be unified in its mission and outlook as it lives out the message of the cross in its midst.

As you go back and read this letter, remember that it was addressed to the church at Corinth. We are, in reality, reading someone else’s mail. But, even when we stand outside the circle of the original conversation, because we have been sanctified in Christ and call upon the name of the Lord, as they did, the conversation enlightens us as well.

At the time that Paul wrote this letter the Corinthians were lamentably deficient in their conduct, in spite of the fact that some of them claimed to have a superior wisdom. Paul, in both Chapters 5 and 6, reminds the Corinthians that there are a number of things that they still do not know

No matter how good the leaders are, if there isn’t a common goal, then nothing will be accomplished. Paul, in this letter urged the Corinthians to become more united in their fellowship. He called on individuals to seek the common good rather than their own personal good, to be willing to make concessions in the interest of others. This letter also imposes limits on spiritual enthusiasm. While recognizing the power of the Spirit in energizing the church and its ministries, Paul also say the excesses of spiritualism. If spiritual pursuits threaten domestic stability; they should be curbed. If they threaten to undermine meaningful worship, they should be balanced with more edifying spiritual behavior. On the whole, what emerges from this letter is a set of exhortations and instructions designed to make congregational life a meaningful form of fellowship.

So we may ready when we hear the call; we may be prepared to serve when asked; but how will we know when the call is made?

For me, the passage from the Old Testament is very special, because I was twelve years old, like Samuel, when I made the decision to seek the God and Country Award in the Scouts. But I am going to save that story for a few weeks from now. More importantly, I want us to look at the response of Eli.

It was Eli that understood, granted not immediately, that it was God calling Samuel that night in the temple. If Eli had not provided the proper instruction, Samuel would have never understood that God was calling him.

Leadership is not just a matter of serving now. Leadership can only be successful if you prepare others to serve. Serving for the present time is important but if you do not build for the future, then what is done today is rather limited.

So, the charge before us today is very simple. To serve the Lord and to welcome all those who seek Him. It may be that you will never know when that moment arrives. The preaching and teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and other bearers of God’s good news had impact but not immediate rewards. As we look through the Bible, we see countless stories of God giving us second, third, and myriad chances. You may never know exactly when the words that you say or the works that you do become the Word of life for another person. Maybe that’s is why this is not a job that you have been asked to do but rather an adventure that you have been asked to undertake.