“My Two Baptisms”


Here are some belated thoughts for Sunday, January 12, 2013 – Baptism of the Lord (Year A). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 42: 1 – 9, Acts 10: 34 – 43, and Matthew 3: 13 – 17.

Been caught up in some other things so I didn’t have a chance to jot down my thoughts for this Sunday. Right now, it would seem that much of what I am posting is more in the nature of thoughts and not really something I would say, per se, if I had to give a message.

There are two baptisms in my life, the one where I was baptized and the one where I wasn’t baptized. Some of this is mentioned in some earlier posts related to the Baptism of the Lord Sunday but rather than link those pieces I will briefly summarize them.

I was baptized as an infant, three months after I was born, on Christmas Eve at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina. Now, I realized that I know nothing about that night other than I had an absolutely stunning baptismal outfit and that my parents and my mother’s parents were there. It is possible that my father’s parents were there as well but I don’t have anything that tells me that.

The baptism that didn’t occur took place on a dark March night in Moberly, Missouri, in the spring of 1969 as I was trying to get back to Kirksville after spring break. I had gone home to Memphis and was trying to get back to Kirksville which, without a car, was a difficult thing to do. I had flown back to St. Louis from Memphis and was scheduled to fly back to Kirksville on Ozark Airlines.

Not knowing then what I know about traveling today, after I got to St. Louis, I sort of took my time wandering down to the Ozark gate. When I got there I found that my flight to Kirksville had been cancelled. Rather than letting the airline get me “home”, I opted to fly to the Columbia, MO, regional airport where they put me on a bus north to Kirksville. When I got to Moberly, I discovered that northeast Missouri was in the midst of a major late snow storm (and the reason for the cancelled flight).

So I ended up in Moberly, on my own and without any sort of travel voucher to get me the rest of the way home. I don’t know how it came about but I ended up spending the night at the local Bible College. And there is where and when the second baptism didn’t take place.

In a discussion with one of the students, a soon-to-be preacher, I was informed that my baptism as an infant didn’t count and that if I wanted to be saved, I needed to be baptised as an adult and now would be a good time to do it.

Now, I will be honest; I have never been comfortable with pastors who take a fundamentalist approach in religion and this college was one of the prime producers of such individuals. And I had been on the road for the better part of 24 hours and I was still 60 miles from school (and what was home for me). And there was the small matter that I had just endured the worst academic quarter of my career and was trying in the spring semester to bring some stability to my college life. I had also spent the better part of the first months of 1969 worried that I was going to be drafted and shipped off to Viet Nam because the paper work dealing with my requested deferment had not gone right.

Baptism cannot and should not be done under turmoil and that was clearly what was going to take place. So I declined the offer and have lived with the fact that at least one young preacher thinks that my life is condemned.

But when my parents brought me to the altar of that church in Lexington, North Carolina, that night in 1950, they brought a commitment to raise me in a way that would allow me to understand what it meant to be baptized. The difficult thing about infant baptism is that the infant may not realize what is going on and may not understand what is being done. But there are individuals present who do understand and who, by their presence, are saying that they will insure that the child one day understands what is being done.

I don’t recall if George Eddy, my pastor at First Evangelical United Brethren Church in Aurora, Colorado, asked me about my baptism when I begun the work on my confirmation and God and Country Award. I would think that he did because nothing was said or done otherwise. I made the conscious and public decision to walk that path and I don’t think I could have walked it without understanding somehow that I was baptized.

What bothers me today is the number of times we as a denomination and individual church baptize a child knowing that we may not see that child or his or her parents for several years and it is time to begin the confirmation process.

Do I think that we should deny a child that opportunity? I think not but I also think that we need to seriously think about how we counsel and advise the parents who come. I also know that we need to be real careful about how we do this because we run the risk of turning away a family who are shopping for a church and are turned away because we are too strict in our thoughts.

This is one of those questions where there is one answer but how we find that answer is dependent on who we are and the time and place the question is asked. In the end, we have to make sure that all who seek Christ know the role that baptism plays in that search and make sure that everyone associated with that individual know what they have to do to help that individual complete their search.

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)

“The Meaning of Our Words”


These are my thoughts for 9 January 2011, the Sunday in the lectionary cycle known as “The Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 42: 1 – 9, Acts 10: 34 – 43, and Matthew 3: 13 – 17. I hope that what I write in this message holds to the thoughts and meaning of the Scriptures for today.

Six people were killed last Saturday; a congresswoman from Arizona was severely wounded as were some twelve others. But they weren’t the only ones to die by gun violence last week. There was the shooting incident in Omaha with a frustrated high school student; there was an earlier shooting in Arizona as well. And we are justifiably shocked by what occurred last Saturday. And we should be; but we should also be shocked by the simple fact of the matter that it happened in the first place.

But it strikes me that we are going to put labels on the victims, not so we can identify them but so that we don’t have to identify them. It becomes so much easier to label a victim because that way, once everything settles in and we get back to normal, we don’t have to think about it.

Let’s face it; we are not willing to accept the idea that six people were killed last Saturday. We are not willing to accept the idea that two people were killed in Omaha last week. And how many other people were killed by senseless acts of violence last week. As long as we can put some sort of label on the victims and the crimes, it becomes very easy to forget about what happened.

Labels make it easier to do things; after all, if we don’t label the files on our computer, we could spend ½ of our time looking for the one file that we need. But when we put labels on people, it becomes very easy to forget them.

If you follow this blog, you know that my wife has started a feeding ministry on weekends at the church. Primarily for the children of the neighborhood, we are not going to tell others that they cannot eat at the table. We are mindful of certain regulations and rules but we will never turn away a hungry soul.

On Sundays, because of the Sunday School, the breakfast is in the community room instead of the gym. About two weeks ago, one member of the congregation came up to me while I was at the serving table and asked me if this was the “poor” people’s food. My response was, essentially, that it was food for everyone. I could not help but think to myself that this person saw food given without question to someone poor or homeless was somehow different from the food that members of the church might eat. We make no distinction about who may partake of the food that we serve. The food, by the way, is prepared fresh every weekend and the ingredients are high quality; Ann doesn’t take any shortcuts when it comes to cooking.

But we are mindful of who does come to the table we prepare. This is the prayer that I wrote for the kitchen:

Our most gracious Heavenly Father, please bless this food and the workers who have prepared it this day. Help us this day to understand that it will be your Son, Jesus Christ, whom we feed this morning and may we treat Him well. May what we do this morning and in the coming mornings better express Your Love and help others to find Your Grace. AMEN

I am sure that every church in this country did something for individuals and families for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am just wondering how many churches are continuing this throughout the rest of the year. Hunger and poverty do not magically appear in the middle of November nor do they likewise magically disappear at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I am withholding judgment on what cause that young man in Arizona to go on that shooting and killing spree. It is interesting to note that witnesses stated that he was trying to reload his weapon while individuals were tackling him and stopping him from shooting. But we have to wonder if the words of hate and violence that have so dominated our culture did not somehow play a role in his decision process.

But, words cannot hurt people, you say. Was it the healing of the sick and the feeding of the poor that caused the religious and political authorities to fear Jesus? Or was it what He was saying?

It has been the words of many who have inspired others to do many horrible and terrible things; it has been the words of many who have inspired others to do many great things. We are seeing an epidemic of what is called cyber-bullying – the spreading of gossip and lies about individuals over the internet. The consequences of these words are now just beginning to be visible. Ask the family of the fourteen-year old in Ohio if words do not hurt people.

And then we say, sometimes to ourselves, sometimes out loud “How can these things happen? We are a Christian nation!” Personally, I wish we would quit saying that we are a Christian nation. We are a nation that loudly proclaims that we are Christians but we haven’t a clue what it means to be a Christian. Go back and read the words from Isaiah for this Sunday and tell me if that is what you do. Go back and tell me if you are like Peter, telling others what Jesus has done and then doing it yourself. How many of us are willing to go out and fight the system that says the poor must suffer while the rich enjoy the good life? How many of us are willing to let the rich keep getting richer while the number of those in poverty get bigger every year?

If we were a Christian nation, we would be a nation that speaks out when one individual has no health insurance. If we were a Christian nation, we would be a nation that made sure that every individual had the same opportunity. Christ did not check the identity papers of those who followed Him; he really didn’t care where they came from. Maybe His disciples were a little leery of letting those who weren’t clearly Israelites get close to Him but He didn’t care. He gave the same opportunity to everyone whether they were a Jew or Gentile, an adult or a child, a man or a woman. Can we, who proclaim that we are a nation that follows Christ, say the same thing?

Yes, there were times when Jesus was angry but where was His anger directed? It was towards those who oppressed the people, not the oppressed people. And when Peter attempted to use the sword to stop the arrest of Jesus in the Garden, Jesus stopped him (and healed the wounded soldier). Violence is not the path that we should be walking. We should be walking and building a path of peace.

If you want to express anger and hatred towards others on this planet, go right ahead. But don’t tell me you are a Christian. If you want to exclude individuals from your church because of the color of their skin or the nature of their lifestyle or the status of their checkbook, go right ahead. But take the Cross off the wall over your altar (if there is one even there) and take the word Christian out of the name of your church.

When Jesus came to John at the Jordan River some two thousand years ago, it was to affirm the purpose of His ministry. John wanted Jesus to baptize him and that is what we often want to do. We want Jesus to affirm what we do, not the other way around. When we are baptized, our old life is washed away and we begin a new life. I don’t think it matters when one is baptized; as long as one knows that they have been baptized and been raised with the understanding of what that means, the baptism holds.

That’s why it is so important for each and every one of us to stop and consider the meaning of our words. We proclaim by our words that we are Christian; we allow everyone to think that we have been baptized and have begun a new life. But do our words reflect the meaning of what we say?

If we have been baptized, if our sins have been washed away, then it is time that we start living the life that comes anew in Christ. It is time that the meanings of our words reflect the baptism that we sought.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

“Why Did He Do That?”


This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday (9 January 2005).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 42: 1 – 9, Acts 10: 34 – 43, and Matthew 3: 13 – 17.

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"What do you do" has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves "What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?" What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry. The real question must always be "How shall we respond?

Martin Luther responded to these questions by posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. John Wesley responded by going to Bristol to preach.

In 1514, Martin Luther was a theology professor at Wittenburg University as well as serving as the priest at the City Church in Wittenburg. He began to notice that many of the people in Wittenberg were not coming to confession but rather going to the neighboring towns of Brandeburg or Anhalt to buy indulgences.

The people had begun to believe that buying indulgences was a way to buy their salvation. As people began the practice of buying indulgences, they began believing that other parts of church membership, including confession, were no longer needed. To Luther, such practices were totally unacceptable. He believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive God’s grace.

The other problem with the sale of indulgences was that the Papal Court in Rome was in great financial trouble and the sale of these paper scripts was being used to finance the church. When Luther read an instruction manual for indulgence traders, he wrote a letter to his church superiors hoping to get rid of this abuse. In this letter he included the 95 theses which were to be the basis for discussion on the topic. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This act, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation was akin to posting the topic on a bulletin board and opening the discussion for public debate. (Adapted from http://www.geocities.come/Heartland/1700/95theses.html)

Martin Luther posted the 95 theses because he saw a church headed in a direction away from the intent of the Gospel. He saw a people who were no longer willing to work towards their salvation through faith but rather by taking an easier way.

John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. Following that evening at the chapel on Aldersgate when he became aware of the presence of Christ in his life and what that presence meant, Wesley left for Bristol, in what was open defiance of the Church of England.

In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.

Bishop Butler — "You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence."

John Wesley — "My lord, my business on earth is to do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do the most good here. Therefore here I stay." (Frank Baker, "John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal", 16th to 24th August, 1739.)

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action! This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

Today, I think we are in a similar situation. We give great lip service to the presence of God in our lives but our words and our actions do not always reflect this. While it is commendable for the outpouring of support by individuals and nations, why are we not always doing this? What will happen to the relief work of the various agencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa after a few more weeks? When all the American citizens have been found or accounted for, what will be the concern of American society?

And how can we justify the expenditure of 350 million dollars in relief for the people of Southeast Asia when we spend that much money in one or two days in the war in Iraq? I am not saying that we shouldn’t support the relief work; I am just wondering if our priorities are in line. Are we returning to the days of indulgences in hopes of buying salvation? Have we forgotten what salvation is and how it came that we might be saved?

And this comes at a time when the very nature of the church is coming into question. Are we a church that understands what Peter said to the gathering in Acts, a church that shows no partiality and is open to all? Or are we a church becoming closed both in mind and body? When he began his own mission work, Peter was among those who thought the church should be closed but through a vision from God, he came to understand that the message of Christ was for all, not just a select or chosen few? I think this is a message that has been forgotten by many pastors today.

I think that sometimes we also forget the message that Jesus sent to John the Baptist when he, John, was in prison. Herod had arrested John and placed him in prison. John knew that his mission on earth was about to end and he wondered if Jesus was the true Messiah, the one whose coming he, John, had been sent to proclaim. Remember that John should see the oppressed who were being freed, the sick and ill who were being healed, and the poor whose spirits were being uplifted. These were the people Isaiah refers to in his prophecy, the poor and the oppressed, the sick and ill, those who have lost hope in the Lord.

I cannot say for certain but I think those thoughts were in the minds of Luther and Wesley when they began their defiance of the church authority. You cannot have a church that ignores the people or takes away the basic message of the Gospel and have any credibility.

But if Jesus’ ministry was to have any credibility, Jesus could not come as a King but rather had to come as a servant. He could not be the King who ruled above the people but rather He had to be a servant who was with the people. He could not be the sacrifice that Isaiah prophesized unless He was the servant to the people. So, like us, Jesus had to be baptized by the water of repentance.

So, the question is "why did He do that?" So that the Gospel would have meaning and hope would be brought to people living in the darkness.

And we are reminded today of something else Jesus did. We are reminded that he gathered with His disciples that evening before His death and celebrated not His impending death but rather His resurrection and our victory over sin and death. He called them together and asked that they remember what they had done together and that they should carry the message of the Gospel into the world for all to hear. We are reminded once again that this celebration of life over death, this celebration of the defeat of sin is open to all, not just some, as long as one accepts Christ as his Savior.

The ultimate question perhaps is "why did Christ die on the Cross?" Because, in doing so, He gave us eternal life. That’s why He did it.



Baptism by Fire


Here are my thoughts for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 10 January 2010.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

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If there is one topic that has positive and negative elements in my life, it is my baptism. I was baptized on December 24, 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina.

Now, for some, this really wasn’t my baptism because I was only an infant and I didn’t know what was going on or what it meant. However, I was raised with the knowledge that I was baptized and I have tried to live my life with that knowledge.

(I first described the following episode in my life in “That First Baptism”.)

But there was that dreary night in late March, 1969, and I was struggling to get back to school after Spring Break. A severe snow storm had crippled travel and instead of making it easily from Memphis to St. Louis, I found myself sixty miles south of Kirksville in Moberly, MO. I was familiar with Moberly but in which I knew no one. Somehow I ended up at the small Bible College located there. The inhabitants of the men’s dormitory found me a space in which I could sleep that night.

In the course of that evening’s conversation, one of the soon-to-be evangelists and preachers asked me about my baptism. I replied that I had been baptized when I was three months old. The young man who asked me this question then informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my infant baptism didn’t count and that I needed to be baptized as an adult if I was ever to see the gates of Heaven.

Perhaps those weren’t his exact words but the meaning of his message was clear and I was greatly disturbed by what he said. First, I was not ready for such words, traveling in difficult circumstances and in a time when my whole future seemed so uncertain. I was struggling with life as a college student and trying to get my grade point average back up after a disastrous fall and winter quarter. (For those readers who attended Truman State University, my alma mater, after 1969, the 1968/69 academic year was the last year the academic year was based on quarter. With the 1969/70 academic year, the school made the change to a semester calendar.) If I messed up the courses that spring, my academic career would take a beating. In addition, Kirksville had a policy that if you were absent the day before or the day after a break, you would lose .5 credits for each course that you missed. This was an additional pressure that I didn’t need at that time.

Since this was the spring of 1969, I thought that there was a good possibility that I would spend the next semester registered as a student of the University of South Viet Nam at a branch campus designated by the United States Army. My request for a draft deferment had been messed up and I anticipated receiving that wonderful letter from my Uncle in Washington at any time.

Just before I had left Kirksville for home and some quiet time, I met with the pastor of First United Methodist Church to have communion. Reverend Marvin Fortel admitted to being surprised by this request (perhaps, because most of the students who attended First Church were from communities nearby and would have taken communion with their parents in the church where they grew up) but he agreed to meet with me before I left. It was just the two of us, meeting in the chapel of the church. Rather than the ritual of communion, it was more of a discussion about communion. And in the process, I came to find out that I did not completely understand what it was to be a Methodist. I had gotten caught up in the “works versus faith” argument that dominates so much of the writing of the Bible and I wasn’t sure which side I was on. But it was clear that my understanding of what it meant to be a Methodist and perhaps a Christian needed some clarification. And as I have written and spoken before, I left that day with a better understanding and a determination to be who I was to be in the eyes of Christ (see “Our Father’s House”).

So it was that a week later, battered by travel and angst, I received another blow when I was told that there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get into heaven, no matter what had happened that Christmas Eve in 1950 in Lexington, North Carolina.

I declined the offer to be baptized that night, perhaps because I wasn’t sure but more likely offended that someone would tell me in the name of Christ that my baptism didn’t count. Even back then I had a dislike for those whose process of evangelism is to tell you, especially when you are already down, how bad your life has been.

I am not going to get into a theological debate about the justification of “infant baptism versus adult baptism”. Too me, it falls under the same category as “immersion versus sprinkling.” Yes, I do not know what was said that night in Lexington, North Carolina by either the minister or my parents on my behalf but I do know that my parents, each in their own way, saw to it that what was done that night was not done in vain.

As I began my confirmation classes in 1964 I also began working on my God and Country award for Boy Scouts. As part of that award, I worked out a way to hold a brief service while my troop was camping in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver. We were a troop that many times camped way back in the hills and that required that we carry every thing in. My father built me a cross that I could take down and fit into my backpack and then put together for the service.

My mother was the rock of my foundation, making sure that Sunday School was a part of my life. Ours was not the most spiritual or religious family but God was present and it was that foundation that got me through those troubled times of 1968 and 1969.

The two scripture readings for today from the New Testament both acknowledge the baptism by water followed by the baptism by the Spirit.

While there have been times when I have put the church on the back burner, it never left my life. But the foundation that was laid with my baptism in 1950, and with the Gospel message and the work of the church would lead me through tough times and good and to this point today.

In one sense that young man in Moberly who told me that my baptism didn’t count was correct. If I had been baptized and my parents had done nothing to raise me in such a way that I would come to know Christ in my heart as my personal Savior, then my baptism would have been meaningless. It would have the same value as the baptism of Carlo and Connie’s baby in the closing scenes of “The Godfather”. Michael Corleone has assumed the role of godfather for his niece and while he is reciting the ritual of baptism, renouncing evil and the powers of Satan, his henchmen are imposing their own justice on The Godfather’s enemies and opponents.

There are those today who were baptized as infants, with great ceremony and members of the family standing around smiling and enjoying the moment, but who didn’t follow the path placed before them that day in their life. For these individuals and their families, this is simply a single moment in their lives and the lives of their family, part of the triad of water, rice, and ashes.

But I do know one person who attended one such event because his family insisted on his presence. And while he had no idea what would happen, his attendance at that event would change his life, for he would find the Lord and later become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. Such effects are what we hope would happen to all who stand as family before the minister and watch the child baptized.

When we baptize an infant, we as the family and the congregation make the pledge to insure that the child before us grows up in such a way that he or she will find Christ when they are old enough. Perhaps we should ponder that thought a little more.

The Gospel reading for today is perhaps the reason why there are those who say that you need to baptized as an adult in addition (or in spite of) to one’s baptism as a child or infant. As John said to those standing on the banks of the River Jordan, “I shall baptize you with water; the one who is to come shall baptize you with fire.” And whether one is baptized as an infant, a child, a young adult, or an older adult, the baptism with water is meaningless unless later you receive the Holy Spirit, the fire that John was alluding to. Perhaps the discussion should be in the ways that one receives the fire, for there are many ways that we encounter Christ and accept the Holy Spirit.

A man died last Monday. His name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi and he was 93 when he died of stomach cancer. That he lived to such an age is perhaps not noteworthy but it is noteworthy that he was the only person to survive both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, Mr. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” on the city. Though horribly burned and temporarily blinded, he was able to return to his home town of Nagasaki and go to work on the 9th of August. His coworkers would not believe him when he described the horror and terror of the August morning and what they should do if such a bomb were to be dropped on Nagasaki. His boss went as far as to say that such words were treasonous and he should be quiet. And apparently at that very moment, “Bock’s Car” dropped the “Fat Man” atomic weapon.

Fortunately, his co-workers and boss, who moments before had dismissed his words and warnings, heeded them and because of the way their office building was constructed, they survived the blast.

It is highly likely that those who survived the two attacks were filled with anger, hatred, resentment and a desire for revenge. They are the same feelings that many people in this country still harbor today, some 9 ½ years after 9/11/2001. They are feelings that no doubt resurfaced following the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

And Mr. Yamaguchi would quite quickly tell you that he had those feelings as well. But out of those feelings came a desire that such an occurrence should never happen again. Throughout the remainder of his life, Mr. Yamaguchi worked for peace and nuclear disarmament.

I cannot say whether he was a Christian or not; the cause for peace transcends religious boundaries. But as one who was truly baptized and transformed by fire, his efforts should strike a chord in our lives as well.

But we hear too many Christians, both laity and clergy, who speak of war as the answer. Their discussion goes beyond Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of a just war and seems bent on the total destruction of those who do not believe as they do. There is fire in their spirit but it is the same fire of death and destruction that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki some 65 years ago.

The fire that John speaks of in today’s Gospel reading is a transforming fire, a fire that cleans our soul much as the water of baptism cleans the “outer dirt”.

You can say that you have been baptized and that you have accepted Christ in your life. There are plenty of people who say that today. But their words, their actions, and their thoughts belie that. They may be a Christian on Sunday morning but they are among the loudest to call for war on Monday; they are among the ones who cry at the plight of the homeless and sick on Sunday but do little the rest of the week in the way of help. They were the ones in church when I was young who sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of color but worked to keep the same children out of their schools.

The transformation of baptism is more than a single moment in one’s life. It is a moment that should define and begin one’s life. It is not the time in life when this is done; it is what is done with the rest of your life after that moment in time.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit is a life changing event. As you finish this piece today, you need to think about your baptism. Have you lead the life that you and/or your parents promised God you would lead on that day? Have you truly accepted Christ in your heart and with your mind and your soul?

Baptism is the outward sign of God’s grace. And God’s grace is unlimited and never ends. The opportunity is now. Just as Isaiah told the people of Israel that God had not forgotten them, so too is he telling us that God has not forgotten us either. And we have the opportunity, just as the Samaritans did when Peter and John came through to change our lives.

Shall this be the moment that you are truly baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit?

Side By Side


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 11 January 2004. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

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On my desk is a picture of two guys standing side by side, long after their glory days in college. It is an interesting picture because, at least for the two of them, it evokes memories of another day some twenty-six years before when they stood side by side in an entirely different situation. The two guys are Alphonso Jackson, President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and myself. It was taken during ceremonies at Truman State University in 1995 when the name of the college was changed from Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University.

But the significance of the picture is not what we have become or what we were back then in 1995 but what we were. In 1966, I was fifteen year old whiz kid experiencing college for the very first time; Al was a nineteen year old transfer from Dallas, Texas, seeking to get his grades up so that he could run track for Kenneth Gardner and the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State. I have always said that the college should put a sign on the door of Missouri Hall 520 indicating what happened to the occupants of that room during the summer of 1966.

The significance of that 1995 picture is that there is another picture of the two of us. For many years, I thought that a copy of the picture existed in the archives of one of the Missouri newspapers but I have never been able to find it. It may be that this picture only existed in one brief moment of television and I doubt that the cameraman who took the video kept a copy.

In the spring of 1969, the black students at Truman sought to gain the right to equal housing in the city of Kirksville. Though the university had been a part of the city for over one hundred years, the relationship between the two institutions was never the best. The university developed essentially as a regional university with many of its students coming from within 60 miles of Kirksville. This allowed them to live at home and drive to school.

There was a substantial population, however, that came from beyond the regional boundaries of the college and needed to live on the campus. And therein lie the problem. It was possible, if you were a white student, to find a place to live off-campus. But for the black students, however, this was not possible. The landlords of Kirksville, reluctant to rent to white students but willing to take their money, did not want to rent to black students at all. The Association of Black Collegians, the recognized black student organization, first went to the Board of Regents asking for help in resolving this problem.

The Board refused, saying that it was not their problem. The ABC then went to the City Council of Kirksville asking for their help. The Council also refused to help, saying that it was not their problem and they needed to work through the university. With a stalemate fast developing and because it was the season of sit-ins and demonstrations, the ABC occupied the administration building.

I was a sophomore that spring, struggling with the realities of college education. The demands of college had taken me away from college life and I knew nothing of what was happening on the other side of the campus. But either by word of mouth or some announcement on the local radio station, I heard that the administration building had been occupied and a confrontation was developing between the black students in the building and white students outside the building. (Despite its connotation as the state’s liberal arts university today, it was then and probably still is today a very politically conservative area.)

So when I heard what was happening, I immediately went over to the administration building. I was fortunate and able to get into the building. I went because the people in the building were my friends and times like these demanded that you support your friends. That is when the other picture was taken. A news cameraman was taking pictures inside the administration building. The picture that I speak of shows a young, longhaired white boy standing next to Alphonso Jackson and the other leaders of the Association of Black Collegians. It is not the type of picture that mothers, fathers, grandmothers and other relatives (or at least my mother, father, and grandmother) speak of with pride. The news footage was broadcast on the St. Louis stations where my grandmother saw it; she immediately called my parents and told them what I was doing. Now, my family had never easily accepted my political activities and the knowledge that I appeared to be leading a campus sit-in didn’t help matters either. But I wasn’t standing there because of my politics; I was standing there because Al was my friend. Interestingly enough, while some whites were involved in the negotiations, most of the white activists were nowhere to be found. Politics may have motivated me in part, I am sure. But I was raised with the thought that if you accepted Christ, you fought for peace, justice, and righteousness. More than anything else, that is what lead me to enter the building that night.

What are friends for? Do they stand by your side only in times of your success? Or are they there no matter what? If you say you are a friend, are you there when you are needed? The disciples had been with Jesus for over three years, walking by his side, learning from him, and now were faced with the twin shocks of seeing Christ die on the cross and his resurrection. As friends, they were together.

It was that time right after the Pentecost when people were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. But as the reading for today notes, the baptism had not been accompanied by the reception of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John were sent by the leaders of the Jerusalem church to complete the task of baptism and to bring the Holy Spirit into the lives of the newly baptized people of Samaria.

This was an interesting time for the disciples. The persecution of the early Church was just beginning; it was also a time of strife within the new church. Paul was still Saul and was actively involved in the persecution of early Christians. The passages just before today’s reading describe the stoning of Stephen and Saul’s silent presence at that time. But Saul is about to encounter Jesus on the road to Damascus and be born again as Paul, the great missionary charged with taking the Gospel message to the Gentiles.

In the meantime, Peter is leading the church in Jerusalem and insisting that all those who decide to follow Christ must first become Jews. It was the opinion of the early church leaders that one must first be a Jew before becoming a Christian. This strict interpretation of the conversion process almost killed the early church before it could begin.

But Peter ultimately received a vision from God that told him that the legalistic approaches he was advocating was inappropriate and not needed. If someone wanted to follow Jesus, that was all that was needed. Peter’s vision reminded him that God does not show favoritism. (Acts 10: 34)  God does not favor an individual because of his station in life, his nationality, or his material possessions. He does, however, respect his character and judge his work. The invitation to follow Christ is given because of one’s belief in Christ, not who he is or what he does. When we insist on some legalistic point of view or hold to some strict requirements for success, we lose sight of this important part of belonging to the Christian community.

There are four views of the Christian community prevalent today. The first is the "new paradigm" style. This style, suggested by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, suggests that mainline churches will grow if they minimize their distinctiveness and offer seekers, those individuals looking for a home church, what they want – an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. The second style is an "evangelical style." This style suggests that growth is found in evangelism based on a conservative theology.

The third style is a "diagnostic" one. Its proponents contend that mainline congregations suffer from systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the theology of the church nor its traditions are the problems; rather, the institution itself is broken and must be fixed or repaired before the church can begin to grow again.

Each of these styles has its own proponents; each style brings suggestions as to how churches struggling in today’s society can best meet cope. But a fourth style is appearing and I hope that it holds more promise than the three others do.

This fourth style seems to acknowledge that evangelism need not necessarily be conservative. It also acknowledges that a congregation with a traditional worship style and traditional building can provide a significant worship experience. This fourth style is called an "intentional style" and is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity and Christian practice. In congregations, the people have chosen to embrace or recreate practices drawn from long Christian tradition – practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as meaningful ways to relate to a post-Christian society. This does not come about by birth but rather choice and through reflective engagement, individually and communally. The importance of this style is that it may be the best way for mainline Protestant churches to revitalize their congregations and move forward in mission.

This is a style based as much on the community of believers as it is on one’s individual belief. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. But it requires a commitment; it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (Adapted from "The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions", printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1)

I think this is what kept the early church together; I think this is what will keep the present church together. But it must be with an understanding that you cannot be anonymous in the church nor can we all be of the same mindset. This is the Sunday that marks the baptism of Jesus. It is a reminder that we are set apart as a particular kind of person – one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.

When a child is baptized in the United Methodist Church, we as members of the community acknowledge that we have a role to play in that child’s upbringing. There will be forces attempted to redefine anyone who is baptized. Commercial messages will attempt to convince that person that a great economic machine whose purpose is to make them a consumer owns him or her, and their sole purpose in life is to keep that machine alive. Other messages will tell them that they belong to no one but themselves, and that individualism is the supreme god.

But the message is that we can be individuals but we are still the children of God. Look at the words of the baptism ritual; until such time that a child is actually baptized, he or she is referred to as "this child." It is only when they are baptized in the name and spirit of God that they have a name.

God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (Adapted from "Naming names" by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003)

If we are to revitalize Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church and I think that that is the proper term, we must remember why people gathered together in those first Methodist societies some two hundred and fifty years ago. We must begin to see that what brought them together was a chance to be part of a community that practiced what it truly believed. The presence of this church in this time must reflect that same belief. It will call for each of us to look at who we are and listen for the call of Christ, asking if we are ready to follow Him.

It begins with our journey to the communion rail this morning. We are reminded that this communion is given to all, not simply to a select group. We are reminded that the only qualification for coming to this communion is that you have an open heart, willing to accept the presence of Christ as your Savior.

Christ gathered with His disciples that evening in the Upper Room, not as a teacher with his pupils but as a friend among friends. He told them that day that as long as they remembered the traditions that he was setting forth that night, He would always be with them. The prophet Isaiah told us that God would be there right by our sides no matter what the problems might be. You are invited to come to the table side by side with your friends and neighbors in this community of Christ. You are challenged to reach out to those not here today and bring them in.



All In The Family


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 7 January 2001. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

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All through my preparation for this sermon I kept asking myself why Jesus would come to John the Baptist and asked to be baptized. After all, as John himself said, Jesus had no need to be baptized for He was without sin.

To answer this question, we have to first understand the nature of the baptism that John was offering. The Jews of that time were familiar with the baptism of Gentile proselytes to Judaism but what John the Baptist was doing was something totally new and different. John was asking those who were baptized to renounce their old way of life and prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus neither had to prepare His heart nor did He have to renounce His sins. But by being baptized by John, Jesus joined those who had been baptized. In doing so, Jesus also showed his support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. Finally, it fulfilled the Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of the Dove.

It is important to understand the importance of Jesus’ baptism to His own ministry. For it showed to the people that Jesus’ ministry was for them.

It is possible that Jesus could have accomplished what He came to do on this earth, but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do often are not leaders very long. And the people knew that Jesus was true to His word. And Jesus’ actions were backed by His words.

Jesus sought common ground with us. Walking in handmade leather sandals, scraping his knuckles working with the wood in his father Joseph’s wood shop, he sought the common ground with us. I suppose that he would have impressed more people had He appeared in more kingly attire or draped in armor prepared to battle, or with the halo the size of the rings of Saturn. But those who He converted who have been converted out of awe and fear, not on the relationship of love between the Father and His children, which is wanted he wanted.

He did not come to this earth hurling thunderbolts though his disciples often urged him to do so. He did not point out the numerous flaws, sins, and inadequacies of those around him though they were obvious to many. He sought the common ground with people so that He could reach them, so that He could teach them and love them where they were, not where He was.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus made it clear that his message was for all, not just a select few. The Jewish leadership of that time was particularly incensed that Jesus would preach such a message of openness. After all, they had preached that salvation could only come through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding to common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously should be allowed to enjoy salvation. To preach a Gospel message of hope and promise to all was totally out of the question.

And I admittedly say this was a certain degree of sarcasm because it seems that many religious leaders today preach the same message. The church today often fails because it too often holds to its old ways, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way that they describe, not by letting Christ into one’s heart.

Only instead of following the law, there is a rigid belief that you must follow. In parts of the church today, there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life. In doing so, they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and the sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many which very earnestly seek to be faithful to the Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of the Scripture that Jesus Himself challenged and opposed. If we are to interpret the Scriptures in a manner that is faithful to Jesus, it must be with compassion in our hearts, not an adherence to laws and structure.

If we profess that the church is to be a sanctuary for those who seek peace and freedom, how can we then turn around and shut our doors to them? The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping in Jerusalem because they were not considered pure enough to enter the Temple. Peter and John, as we read in the second lesson this morning, were the official messengers from Jerusalem sent to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from the Jews; the Jews, in turn, had to understand that the same salvation had come to the Samaritans. With the tremendous hatred that existed between the Samaritans and the Jews, God demonstrated to both sides that they could and would be united as one church. The dependence of the Samaritans upon the Jews to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit was the healing sign that the two sides were to become one. When Peter later preached to the Gentiles, they immediately believed and received the gift of the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands. This served as a sign to the Jews that the same gift was being given to the Gentiles as well. The Holy Spirit was the unifying factor that would bring the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into one body.

The passage from Isaiah is a good one to begin the year with. It is about the return of God’s children. When we meet at Charge Conference in four weeks, we will set as our primary goal for the coming year, the goal of "remembering" all of those members of this church, of this family of God, who, for whatever reason, have stopped attending.

Some of these cannot attend because they live elsewhere or are physically unable to come. Through visitation and the newsletter, we can still let them know that they are not forgotten.

For those who have stopped attending, we need to make every concerted effort to let the know that they haven’t been forgotten and that they are still a part of this church family.

Those where God’s words to the people of Israel back then; they are God’s words to us this day. Even when you feel lost and forgotten, God never forgot you. Even when everything seemed hopeless and the obstacles too great to overcome, God will be there to help you. And by sending His son, who paid the ultimate price with His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to get us home.

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

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

Down By The Riverside


This was the message I presented on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday (9 January 2000) at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 1: 1 – 5, Acts 19: 1- 7, and Mark 1: 4 – 11.

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Last week I spoke about the journey that we can take and how we needed to know for what purpose that journey was being undertaken. Today we must look at the beginning of any journey. For no matter where your own individual journey takes you or how you hope to arrive at your desired destination, there has to be a beginning to the journey; there must be a moment that marks the beginning of the journey.

To me, each of the Scripture passages for today mark a beginning. These readings, chosen by someone else to have meaning for today, are especially appropriate, I think, because tonight, as we elect our new officers and decide on the budget for the church, we begin our new administrative year.

In Genesis 1, we mark the beginning of the world, not in terms of how it was created physically, but in terms of the fact that God created the world and all around it. In the Mark, we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and in the reading from Acts, we read about the beginning of the ministry from the perspective of others.

That Jesus would begin his ministry by going to meet John at the river Jordan was remarkable. As John himself noted, he (John) was not even worthy of carrying Jesus’ shoes yet here was Jesus wanting him to baptize him.

At first, John refused to baptize Jesus because he knew that he, Jesus, was not guilty of the sins for against which he preached. But, for John to tell the world of the Messiah and his coming there had to be a sign.

For Jesus, as well, this act was necessary for the beginning of his ministry. Jesus did not have to be baptized so the very fact that he did tells us something. The act of Jesus being baptized was an intentional one, showing to the world that His mission was about to begin.

When Jesus was baptized, John heard God speak from heaven identifying Jesus as My beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit settled on Christ in the form of a dove. God’s words “This is my Son” were words meant for John and the others to hear, telling them that Jesus’ ministry was now beginning.

In the Epistle reading for today, we find that some of the early believers had only been baptized in terms of water. But by accepting Jesus as their Savior, by believing in the one who was to come after John, the Holy Spirit also descended upon them. And in doing so, each one gained many different abilities.

For Jesus, this act of baptism was more than simply the mark of his new ministry; it was also the act of following what God wanted him to do, an act of fidelity to the commands of God. When Jesus left Heaven, he stepped from being God to being human, from a state of knowing to one of surrender. He didn’t have to do that but then, if he hadn’t, we would never know what salvation is really about.

In Hymn #404, we sing of the river Jordan running cold, chilling the body but not the soul. Jesus came to the river Jordan that day knowing that His life would change. The Israelite nation stood on the banks of the river Jordan, knowing they had to cross that river to reach the Promised Land. So too did Jesus have to enter the waters of the Jordan so that we could reach the Promised Land.

When I first thought about this sermon and came up with the title, I was thinking of the old spiritual “Down by the Riverside” and the first verse, “I’m going to lay all burdens down.” By accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, by believing in him, we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and take away our burdens.

Yesterday, I started the advanced lay speaker school in Beacon. I attend these schools each year, not because I have to but, rather, because I think it helps me to get a better understanding of what preaching is all about. Occasionally, I get some material that helps me better understand the Bible. Yesterday was no exception.

One line from the reading that we did yesterday that struck me was about baptism. “The waters of baptism flow outward from the congregation into its surroundings, leading to an ever-increasing freedom of the people to celebrate God’s love and justice throughout the world.”

We have come this far and now we are down by the riverside. A new journey awaits us. Are you willing to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Are you willing to put down all your burdens and let the Holy Spirit come into your life?

To Give Our Best


Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, The Baptism of the Lord.  I will be preaching at Dover Plains UMC, Dover, NY tomorrow.

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The comments between John the Baptist and Jesus (1) that are the centerpiece of today’s Gospel reading are very interesting, if for no other reason that they speak highly of how we see our relationship with God today.

John understands the relationship between Jesus, his cousin, and himself and he is not willing to baptize Jesus as he has baptized others. He understands quite easily that he does not have the stature or the ability to truly baptize Jesus. Yet, as Jesus points out, John must baptize Jesus if righteousness is to be fulfilled.

We do not make that distinction. We accept quite willingly and almost deliberately the idea that Jesus is our servant, the person who does our biding. We quite willingly place ourselves, individually and as a society, above Jesus and expect Jesus to do whatever it is we ask of Him.

We are told today by so many self-proclaimed ministers of God that all we have to do is give them, the charlatans, our money and God will return it to us seven- or ten-fold, because that is the power of the Holy Spirit. We no longer see Jesus Christ as our Savior and God as our Father but rather a means by which we can achieve money or whatever we desire or seek.

We have confused the role of God in society. God is no longer the reason for what we do but rather the vehicle for what we seek.

We hear nothing today about the mission of Christ, which He Himself proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth some two thousands years ago, a mission first proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. (2) At a time when I needed to know if there was ever an answer to the problems of the world, if it was ever possible to end war and hatred, segregation and injustice, I found the answer in the church. Now, it appears that the church supports war and hatred and is moving to increase segregation and injustice.

The awe and respect that we should give God has been taken away by those who seek to limit His presence to one or two hours on a Sunday morning. We measure the effectiveness of a preacher by the shortness of their sermons, not by how they inspire us to action. In Memphis and other parts of the South, even perhaps in other parts of this country, a good service is one that lets out early enough so that the congregation can get to Applebee’s or Shoney’s before the other churches do.

We hear too many preachers and ministers preach against sin yet repeatedly get caught in the very act they preach against. It is no wonder that the cry of hypocrisy that was first voiced by John the Baptist along side the River Jordan is voiced by so many young people today. The youth of this country are turning away from the church, not because the church doesn’t care about them (which is true) but because the church doesn’t care that its message is so often empty, meaningless, irrelevant and seen as an attempt to market the Gospel instead of telling the story and spreading the Word of God.

The God who may have inspired the first successful peasants’ uprising in history (the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt) is a God of revolution. Yet, it has often been said those who make up the three faiths that He has inspired (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed this God of revolution into a God of the status quo. (3)

We have been commanded to go out into the world and make disciples of all whom we encounter. And this we do quite readily, offering bribes to some and threatening others with death, so that they will convert. We do so without concern for where we are or whom we are with. We proclaim that our God is the only God, even when the historical records tell us that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same God. We expect the people whom we expect to convert to think and believe as we do. There are those who are quite willing to tell devout believers in other faiths that they, the devout believer, are doomed because they do not follow the same path of faith as others do. If we do not understand what and why others believe, then we have no business trying to explain what it is that we believe.

A person who walks the path of faith dictated by their religion is walking a different path than the one we walk. They will reach their goal if they hold true to their beliefs, just as we will. We should not be condemning them or chastising them just because their belief system is different from ours.

But those who proclaim a belief system but do not follow the belief system, those who flit between one system and another, and those who try to choose the best virtues of all systems must be shown that such an approach will not work. But to say that our system is the best system is egotistical at best and shows a great lack of understanding about what others believe.

It is true that when Peter spoke to the crowd that he repeated the commandment that Jesus had given to the disciples. (4) But Peter added two other comments that reflected what Jesus also said; respect those who know God and do it in the right way.

When mankind first came to know God, it was done with a certain amount of fear. We were to see God with a sense of wonder and awe but that was because we didn’t know who God was and what God meant. Through Jesus Christ we have come to know that God is our Father and that He loves us. Now, when we hear the word “fear”, we should realize that it means more to understand and know more than anything else. As Peter reminded the people, we are to respect those who know God.

In part, that is why we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Last week we celebrated Epiphany, the Magi’s recognition of the true nature of the Christ Child. These are occasions that illuminate God’s nature. These are occasions when God chooses to reveal who He is. These are also occasions that not only demonstrate what God is like but also who God wishes us to be.

Baptism is like so much of the church today. It is something we desire but it is something that we don’t understand. We often forget that baptism is the celebration of the incomparable gift we have received from God. It gives us an identity. But it is also about fully engaging the responsibility that this identity entails.

Just as the baptism of Jesus initiated his public ministry, so to is it our call to the community of the church. It means that together as a church we are meant to be witnesses for peace in an often cruel and violent world. We are to bring a message of hope in a world of despair. Whoever the worldly powers may be, Christians are called to witness to another, greater power. (5)

It has often been said that Christianity began as a way of life, an alternative to a set of creeds and doctrines that demanded total agreement. Christianity was a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law, by ritual, and by an angry God. It was a way of life that demanded radical inclusion, not exclusion, as an expression of faith in action. It offered hope and aid to those who needed it.

Yet today, we see a church that is becoming increasingly rigid and orthodox, a church that is becoming more and more exclusionary in nature. What we were taught by Jesus before Easter has become less important that the things the post-Easter church insists that we believe. We have created a God in our image.

God sent His Son as a sign that He cared about us. He did not send a substitute but the best. Are we able to say that when we represent the church in today’s society we show the best?

The readings from Acts (6) and Isaiah (7) offer us a glimpse of that quality that we profess but do not possess. We do not have a God who is limited by our understanding of baptism and what it signifies; we have a God who created humanity in His image and whose love for us is so great that it embraces all people with no exception. (8) He has given us His best and He expects us to do the same.

I have seen churches, both large and small, that were built by their respective congregations who gave of themselves in terms of time, money, and energy all for the Glory of the Lord. But I have seen too many churches, both big and small, that were built to glorify the building and the congregation.

I have heard and sung music that reflects the joy and power found in the Glory of God. I rejoice in music written and played that uplifts the congregation. But I have also heard music played in churches and in religious situations that is only played for the glory and enjoyment of the player. I have left those performances wondering why there was no feeling in the songs that were sung or the music played.

When He first articulated His mission, He proclaimed that He had come to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and freedom to the oppressed. He stated that the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in His presence. Yet, today there are still homeless and we probably have only an estimate as to how many there are.

The infant mortality rate in Orange County (and perhaps elsewhere in this country) rivals that of many third world countries. This country’s overall healthcare system ranks nineteenth among the major industrial nations in preventable deaths. I won’t even begin to comment on the ranking of our educational system when compared to those same countries. For a country that is so often pre-occupied with being number 1, we have a rather dismal record. We say that we are a Christian country but we are more interested in ourselves than we are others.

To give your best is probably the hardest thing you will be asked to do. But God sent His Son knowing that His Son would die on the Cross for us. His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, began His ministry at the River Jordan knowing full well that the path He walked would take Him to the Cross.

We are called to give our best, not just part of it. We are called to give our best each day, not just one day a week. It is a call that says “in the years of your despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed by love; but now the hour has struck for you to see the signs of new hope that I am giving to my people in the world; and to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily lives?” (9)

Too many people today see Christianity as a part time thing, a hobby at best. But to be called by Christ is a full-time experience. It does not matter what you do in life, for each person’s role in life is different. But as Paul wrote to the people of Colossus, “whatever you do, do it from the heart, as though you were working for God and not men.” (10)

God gave us His best, so why should we not also do so?

(1) Matthew 3: 14 – 15

(2) Isaiah 42: 1 – 9

(3) Adapted from Karen Armstrong’s History of God, page 20

(4) Acts 10: 34 – 43

(5) Adapted from “Marked for a purpose” by Kathleen Norris, Christian Century, December 25, 2007

(6) See footnote 4

(7) See footnote 2

(8) See footnote 5

(9) Adapted from “Evangelism in Our Day”, Faith in a Secular Age, by Colin Williamson

(10) Colossians 3: 23