“Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?”


This is the message that I am giving at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church in Fort Montgomery, NY this Sunday, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 1st. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14. The service begins at 9:30 and you are welcome to come on in.

Some years ago (a senior phrase for I can’t remember when) the comedian, actor, musician, and entrepreneur Steve Allen created what some called the “ultimate talk show”. Fortunately, if one does remember certain aspects of something, it is likely that one will find what they are looking for somewhere on the Internet.

Presented on PBS, The Meeting of Minds featured guests who played important roles in history. Guests included Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Frances Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Charles Darwin, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas More, Karl Marx, Galileo Galilei, and Attila the Hun. Characters from Shakespeare’s plays were the guests on one show.

Allen noted that he felt that putting the greatest figures of all time together and have them interact with each other provided an interesting way to understand the world around us today and to prepare us for tomorrow. (notes from “Meeting of Minds”)

Along those lines, when I first began blogging, I was asked in an on-line interview to identify my “spiritual heroes”.

I listed Peter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dr. Meredith Eller (one of my college professors), and Clarence Jordan and gave a brief explanation of why I chose those four individuals. Bonhoeffer, Eller, and Jordan were chosen because of the impact their lives had on my own life. And while I was thinking of the impact their lives had on my life in the secular world, I quickly found that it was very difficult to separate the secular world from the spiritual world. And what each of these individuals meant to my spiritual life is perhaps one of the reasons why I am where I am on this journey with Christ today.

The choice of Peter as a spiritual hero probably had to do more with what I thought we had in common from reading about him. If I were to prepare this list today and keep one of the twelve disciples on it, I would probably pick Nathaniel Bartholomew. It isn’t that Peter has dropped off the list but I find that at this time of my life I perhaps have more in common with Nathaniel than the other disciples.

Nathaniel Bartholomew was said to be the scholar of the group. Tradition has it that he went to Georgia with Thomas on his mission trip after Pentecost. While the Georgia that Nathaniel and Thomas traveled to is not the Georgia in my own life, it offers a connection, both in terms of spiritual heroes and in terms of Methodism, that is so much a part of my life today (adapted from “Who Will Be The One?”).

Along that train of thought, if I were to have a series of these meetings, much in the manner of Steve Allen’s work, I would have dinner with Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, and Robert Boyle. The choice of these three individuals is in part because of my own background in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

I would hope that you know who Isaac Newton was and that your memory of high school chemistry hasn’t faded to the point where you have forgotten that Joseph Priestley was the co-discoverer of oxygen and Robert Boyle is considered the father of modern chemistry. It would be nice to have these three gentleman at dinner so that we could discuss many things and perhaps Newton could help me with that calculus problem that has bothered me all these years.

But any discussion with these three individuals would be more than simply a discussion of chemistry, physics, and mathematics; it would also be a discussion of God, Christ, and religion. While many individuals know of the scientific background of Newton, Boyle, and Priestley, very few are aware of their religious backgrounds.

Newton was required to take a religious position upon graduation with each of his three degrees but was able to get an exemption from that requirement. Boyle’s early writings were more of what we would call religious tracts rather than chemistry research notes. Priestley was a Dissenter, one whose beliefs differed from the orthodox view of the Church of England. His views about the nature of God would ultimately lead to his departure from England and move to America. Each of these individuals saw God as a part of their own life and the reason for their research; it was and continues to be a statement radically different from the views of many concerning science and faith in today’s society.

I would also invite the former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, and my favorite political writer, Molly Ivins, to have dinner with my wife, Ann, and I. To understand who these ladies were and why I would invite them to dinner I need to retell a story that Molly Ivins wrote about Governor Richards and that I posted on my blog in “Three Women of Texas”.

At a long-ago political do at Scholz Garten in Austin, everybody who was anybody was there meetin’ and greetin’ at a furious pace. A group of us got tired feet and went to lean our butts against a table at the back wall of the bar. Perched like birds in a row were Bob Bullock, then state comptroller; moi; Charles Miles, the head of Bullock’s personnel department; and Ms. Ann Richards. Bullock, 20 years in Texas politics, knew every sorry, no good sumbitch in the entire state. Some old racist judge from East Texas came up to him: “Bob, my boy, how are you?”

Bullock said, “Judge, I’d like you to meet my friends: This is Molly Ivins with the Texas Observer.”

The judge peered up at me and said, “How yew, little lady?”

Bullock, “And this is Charles Miles, the head of my personnel department.” Miles, who is black, stuck out his hand, and the judge got an expression on his face as though he had just stepped into a fresh cowpie. He reached out and touched Charlie’s palm with one finger, while turning eagerly to the pretty, blond, blue-eyed Ann Richards. “And who is this lovely lady?”

Ann beamed and replied, “I am Mrs. Miles.”

I trust that you understand the humor and irony of this story. I grew up in the South during that period of time when the color of your skin was the determinate factor in one’s acceptance in society and it was very easy to understand that judge and his behavior. But I also understood Ann Richard’s sense of irony and her ability to put ignorance in its place.

Perhaps you have wandered into some meeting and received a similar greeting as the one given by the judge in my little story. And while I hope that it has never happened to you, I know of too many situations where a visitor to a church has, in fact, encountered a similar greeting. And I would hope that if you were the witness to such a greeting, your response would be as much like Ann Richards as it might be for Christ to greet someone lost.

Now, the term for all of this is “Radical Hospitality”, one of the five fruitful practices of a vital and viable church (see “Five Practices with Robert Schnase”.

Robert Schnase provides two definitions for this idea, the first that focuses on the congregation; the second which focuses on the individual.

Congregations that practice Radical Hospitality demonstrate an active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ. Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile.

In our personal walk with Christ, radical hospitality begins with an extraordinary receptivity to the grace of God. In distinctive and personal ways, we invite God into our hearts and make space for God in our lives. We say Yes to God and open ourselves to the spiritual life. We accept God’s love and acceptance of us. We receive God’s love and offer it to others.

Now, radical hospitality is not really a new idea. After all, what did Jesus say to the 72 he sent out on that first mission trip? And did the early circuit riders, including the many who traversed this part of the Hudson Valley some two hundred and fifty years go, make it from charge to charge? If it were not for the hospitality of the churches and the individuals who welcomed those 72 and the early circuit riders, the chances are the church would have died a long time ago.

And, as noted in the reading from Hebrews for today, how many times did someone unknowingly feed one of God’s Angels? How many times did one of the early followers of Jesus in those early post-Easter days greet a stranger and tell them the story, only to find out it was Jesus they were talking with?

But it would seem today that hospitality is, in itself, a radical notion; something that should never be tried. We have regressed from the idea that anyone may enter into God’s House to the notion that the sanctuary is a place for only a privileged few. And while we may think that this is acceptable, we ignore the words of the prophets, such as Jeremiah, who warned the people that in doing so they were deserting God.

Dan Dick started one of his blogs a couple of years ago with a note about a conversation he had recently.

I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world. My argument was simple: if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills. Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?” I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known. Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/) – I first used this in “A New Set of Guidelines”

Despite having the advantage of knowing what happened to the people of Israel, despite hearing the words of the Old Testament prophets warn against turning from God, we go out and do the same things over again and 1) we don’t even see what we are doing and 2) we wonder where we are going wrong!

At least today we are aware that we are in trouble but no matter how hard we try we can’t find a solution because we don’t know what the problem is.

So how do we do that today? How can we, how should we show the love of Christ in a world where hospitality is often times a forgotten word? How do we engage in radical hospitality when the thought of many people is to not let people in? Maybe we need to step back and reflect on how we got here.

Let us go back to Jesus telling the people to open the doors of the banquet hall and invite all who can come to come, even if they are unable to repay the host (and I can hear almost every finance chair across the country cringing in their sears at that thought). Let us remember the hospitality shown by the early post-Easter church, even when to openly declare your faith probably meant persecution, arrest, trial, and execution.

Let us remember that we are the inheritors of a movement that gathered in the homes of believers and invited not just believers but non-believers to be a part of their community. Let us also remember that we are also the inheritors of a movement that faced intense opposition and persecution, and I am not necessarily speaking of the early, post-Easter Christians.

Methodism here in America was often marked by the clergy of other denominations denouncing Methodist preachers for “preaching delusions,” “working to deceive others,” spouting heretical doctrines,” and “promoting wild singularities”. These “wild singularities” included dramatic preaching, exuberant worship, and weekly class meetings where members shared their inner most selves.

Also, in the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the states supported established churches and these entrenched denominations did not welcome new religious groups. In some places, it was against the law for non-established religious groups to hold services. (adapted from The Heritage of American Methodism, Kenneth Cain Kingham)

Isn’t it nice to know that once we were the rebels, called by Christ to preach the Gospel wherever and whenever? Isn’t it frightening to know that we are know like everyone else?

How was it that this church and all other churches in this area along the roads that parallel the Hudson River came into being? At a time when the people cried out for the Gospel, when the people cried out for spiritual freedom as much as political freedom, the early Methodist circuit came bringing the Good News.

But where, if they could not meet in established churches, could they meet? What was it that the writer of Hebrews told those who received that letter?

So let’s go outside, where Jesus is, where the action is—not trying to be privileged insiders, but taking our share in the abuse of Jesus. This “insider world” is not our home. We have our eyes peeled for the City about to come.

It’s easy to see that they took the heed of the Hebrews and meet outside the confines of the regular church.

We need to recapture that spirit, if for no other reason that it will help people understand why we are Methodists. It was at those gatherings that we began to understand why we are called Methodists. To gather at one’s home was often times the only way they could worship.

But I think it is important that we do more than simply meet in other people’s homes, much in the manner of the early Methodist classes. I think that is important because if we do is transfer the church from the church building to someone’s house then we do nothing that solves the problems that we face. We must find ways to do church outside the framework of “normal” church.

In the vernacular of today, how can we “do” church without “doing” church? The one thing I cannot do on a single Sunday morning as the guest of the congregation is tell you how to do this. You know more about what you have, what skills and capabilities you have and where to draw your resources from; all you have to do is look. The question then become what ideas can you draw from to decide what it is that you all can do. I can say, as I said last week, that one should take the Spiritual Gifts course offered by the NY/CT District. This course will give you some idea of what your gifts are and what you can do to utilize those gifts.

How can I see church outside the church? We are so used to church on Sunday we forget the role the church played in communities the rest of the week. And with so many other groups grabbing Sunday time for their events, maybe we should take some other time to offer people that all too critical moment away from the secular world.

We must ask ourselves today how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our answer must be rooted in knowing that we are to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment and not the bringers of that fulfillment. In doing so we free ourselves from the conformity of the world’s self-assertive way and transformed into the way and manner Christ assumed in his ministry for us.

I used this quote from Will Cotton, the Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this part of my own personal journey with Christ last week but they bear repeating today. He wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift from church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

The church today, wherever it may be located, on a country road somewhere, in the suburbs of a city, or even on a street corner in the city, can no longer just be a Sunday only operation. It has to be, quite literally, a 24/7 operation. It can no longer be the repository of holy relics; it has to be the source for all who seek answers. It has to be a fulfillment of the Gospel message to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the downtrodden, and bring hope to the lost and weary. (from “Thinking Outside The Box”)

So, let me invite you to be a part of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday mornings at Grace UMC in Newburgh. Come and be a part of the worship that we offer every Saturday morning and come and be a part of a community of sixty to seventy souls that gathered for the breakfast Ann has prepared.

This is not an invitation to come and work, though that would be nice. But I also think that to just come and sit with those who have come would be just as nice. We open the doors to the community at 8 and begin our brief worship service at about 8:10 – this Saturday Pastor Jeff will lead the worship and offer communion; Lay servants in the district have the chance to lead the worship on the other Saturdays of the month; call me if you are interested in that aspect).

And maybe, as you sit in a different setting but experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, which I truly believe is present at that time each Saturday, an idea will come into your mind about what you can do.

We did not set out to change the world when we began Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, only offer a decent and nutritious meal to who all who came.

But in the Spirit of those who offered meals to the weary travelers of the Old Testament, in the Spirit of those who offered meals as part of the worship, so we have begun opening the doors to God’s Kingdom just a bit wider.

So I will hope you will accept this invitation, just as I hope that you will accept the invitation that Jesus gave to you when he told the host to open the doors of the banquet hall. And I hope that you will then let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and mind and soul and empower you to invite others to be a part of that wonderful banquet found in God’s Kingdom.

“Seeing Through the Clouds”


I was at the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street, Highland Falls, NY 10928) yesterday (6 March 2011), Transfiguration Sunday.  The Scriptures for Sunday were Exodus 24: 12 – 18, 2 Peter 1: 16 – 21, and Matthew 17: 1 – 9.

Their service starts at 11 am and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.

Notes added on 12 November 2013 – To get from Newburgh to Highland Falls requires driving over Storm King Mountain.  As I recall, on this Sunday, the cloud cover that morning was rather low and you entered the clouds as you drove up the north slope and then back through the clouds as you came down on the south slope.  It made for a very interesting drive and relationship to the Old Testament reading that morning.

I have also removed the link to my publications list; if you are interested in seeing this list, please contact me.

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There is a new phrase floating around these days called “cloud computing.” Essentially, it is a way for two members of a family to share pictures or videos or some other file through the Internet. It is a great idea, except for one thing; it is not a new idea.

Sharing files was one of the primary reasons that the Internet was invented back in the late 1980s. And the sharing of files so that two individuals in different locations can work on the file at the same time has been a part of most office computer networks since the invention of the local area network. What “cloud computing” does is to expand the range of the collaboration. But again, that is nothing new, at least as far as I know.

Back in 1991, Marcin Paprzycki and I co-authored a series of manuscripts that focused on the use of computer networks in the classroom. We foresaw a number of situations that are in place today. And after the publication of one of our papers, George Duckett contacted us about a possible collaborative research project. Now, some people will say that this is no big deal; collaborative research projects are part and parcel of academic life. The only thing about this project was that George was at the University of Tasmania in Australia, Marcin was at The University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas, and I was at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The only contact that the three of us had was through e-mail communication on a regular basis. I was fortunate to meet George when he came to the United States in 1995 but Marcin never met him in person. In addition to the research papers generated by the project, what was, I believe, the first paper to outline what was needed for an on-line collaborative project was also published. Some aspects of what we wrote are no longer applicable but I believe the general ideas expressed are still valid. (A list of the papers that Marcin, George and I wrote from 1991 to 1995 can be found on “Publications of Tony Mitchell”; if you are interested in a copy, drop me a note. The outline for doing research on the Internet is still available – “Research Methods Using Computer Networks”, with Marcin Paprzycki and George Duckett, The Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture, 2(4), August 1994.)

Now, what do you ask does all this have to do with a church? Well, there are a number of churches who see “cloud computing” and what one can do with it as their, excuse me for an obvious pun, salvation. There are a number of churches who have been recording their Sunday morning worship services and sending the tapes around to the home-bound members and that is good. Some have even video taped the service and sent copies of the video. With “cloud computing”, it is possible for any church with a minimal cost to broadcast on the Internet, extending the range of the church from the local community to the whole world. There is the possibility of interactive communication, of people in one place conversing in real time with people in another. This will open new avenues for the church, such as an on-line church (which some are trying to develop right now).

But at some point we have to realize that the church is still in the “people” business. I have said on numerous occasions before but it bears repeating. Technology is nice; after all, I used a laptop computer to prepare and print this sermon; I will post it to my blog so that others can read it later in the day. But it always comes down to the people.

It does not matter how many people you reach on-line. For one thing there are certain aspects of the church, baptism and communion, that I truly feel cannot be done on-line; they must be done in person. It doesn’t matter if you make either an audio or video recording of the service and take it to the home-bound if you don’t spend time with the people when you take the recording.

It may be nice to do church in “the cloud” but I would much rather be there as well.

Of course, Moses spent forty days in the cloud with God but he was alone and all the Israelites saw was something that looked like a raging fire (to borrow a phrase from The Message’s translation of the Old Testament reading for today). And while Moses was on the mountain with God, he could not see what was happening to the people at the foot of the mountain.

He could not see or sense their panic as the days passed and he did not return. He could not see them begging with Aaron and the other elders to create the golden calf so that they would have tangible evidence of a god.

We all know what happened when Moses and Joshua came back down from the mountain and discovered the unfaithfulness of the people. So we will leave that for another day and jump forward to the Gospel reading when Peter, James, and John join Jesus on the mountain top.

We aren’t told if the mountain was shrouded in clouds as was the case when Moses climbed to the top. But we do know that Peter, filled with the excitement of the moment, wanted to build a monument to mark this moment and place. But who would have seen this monument? How would the people have gotten to it?

If this mountain were shrouded in clouds, the people would not have seen it and the fact that it was on the mountaintop meant that it wasn’t easily accessible. That’s not what a church is supposed to be. A church is supposed to be visible and accessible, available for all the people of the community, not just a select few.

What Jesus did and does today is call us by our own name. He has removed the clouds of mystery that surround our lives and keep us from seeing God. Each one of us has a unique and different relationship with Jesus and it is this fact that we each individually have this in common that brings us together every Sunday. We are reminded that I cannot answer your call when Jesus calls you by your name. Nor can you answer when Jesus calls me. But because we are a collective group of individuals who are joined by a similar experience we can help each other. (I want to thank John Meunier for his thoughts on this relationship – “What you can’t do for me”)

And that is what prompted Peter to write his words. He was there that day; he saw the Light that was Christ but instead of keeping it secret or private, he chose to share it with others. As was written, “Prophecy resulted when the Holy Spirit prompted men and women to speak God’s Word.”

The clouds have rolled away and the sun shines brightly. And we have been challenged to tell others what we have seen and what has happened. Some may choose to use new technologies and this will allow many to know about Christ for the first time. But many more others will come to know who Christ is and what He means by what each one of us does. Peter, James, and John were told not to speak of what they saw on the mountain that day some two thousand years ago because the time wasn’t right. But the time is right today for each of us to go forth in the world and let the people know who Christ is and what He means for each one of us.

“A New Set of Guidelines”


I  am preaching at the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928) this morning, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 20 February 2011.  The service starts at 11 am and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.  The Scriptures for Sunday are Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23; and Matthew 5: 38 -48.

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I am beginning what I hope is a new path in my ministry. It comes amidst what some see as great changes in the ministry of the church.

Now, for some, any change in ministry, be it at the denominational level, the local level, or one’s own ministry, can be a traumatic event. Any change in one’s life, for that matter, will have consequences that may not be immediately evident. All we have to do is look at what is transpiring in the Middle East to understand what the threat of change and actual change can do to a country and to its people. There are those, of course, who will resist change. Such resistance can be, as we have also seen, violent and repressive. But it can also be done in soft and subtle ways.

But what I find interesting is the role that the church, be it an entire denomination, a single church, or individuals from a single church, can be as an agent for change. Of course, it can also be an instrument that prevents change.

Dan Dick started one of his recent blogs with a note about a conversation he had recently.

I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world.  My argument was simple:  if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills.  Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?”  I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known.  Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/)

Dr. Dick was looking at another issue but what this conversation shows is that unless we are willing to make some changes in our own lives, we will not be able to make the church viable and relevant to the needs of society.

When the church began, it met in secret in people’s homes, mostly out of fear of arrest and persecution. It was a gathering of people who opposed the status quo, both the religious status quo and the status quo of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome enforced by military might.

And the Methodist Church began in response to the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As machines began doing the work of humans and humans became part of the process, the people called Methodists stood in opposition. This was not a Luddite movement where people rebelled against machines taking away their livelihoods but rather concern that people, no matter their place in society or where they were born or what they did, still have status in society.

What I find interesting is that the establishment, be it the religious establishment or the political establishment, did not take kindly to either the new church some two thousand years ago or the Methodist revival of the 18th century. But the changes that came from that opposition still echo throughout the years. It has noted on a number of occasions that the interaction of the people called Methodists in the 18th century allowed England to escape the bloody revolution that marked the French revolution of that same time period. Can a church change the world? It would appear that it can.

And now, as we are well into what some call the third great industrial revolution (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”) we find the role of the church changing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (and I will use the translation as written in The Message), “Don’t fool yourself. Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.”

But this new revolution, or rather the adaptation of the technology of the revolution, shows us how easy it is to reach people. But you must do more than reach people. The Egyptian government tried to quell the rebellion in the country by shutting down Internet access. But once contact had been made between people and they had met, such an act was a futile gesture.

It is one thing to say that the church has a website or a Facebook page. That is not where the ministry lies. You do not meet people on a computer screen; you meet them somewhere. The failure of the Mubarak government to keep the people from gathering together is what brought about the change in Egypt, not the fact that they were using Facebook and other forms of social networking. The same is true when it comes to churches.

Will Cotton, the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this journey, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church.  Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations.  The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars.   My job description (he is currently Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas) has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit.  I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go.  I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed.  But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups.  My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal.  My two CLMs came out of those classes.  If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before.  The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that).  But the shift form church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

I think that there will be a place for the local church in this ministry. There must be a place where things can happen; there must be a place where one can, if you will, recharge one’s soul. But the local church and those who are part of it must understand that they are a part of this process.

One might say, as the title of this message implies, that we need a new set of guidelines for living. Actually, we don’t need a new set; we just have to understand the set that we are supposed to be working under.

First, we have to understand the other thing that Paul was telling the Corinthians; we are the builders of the house where people will meet. If this house that we are building is up to God’s standards, if we use cheap or inferior materials and slip-shod methods, we will quickly find out what many people already know. As Paul wrote, if the building that we build doesn’t pass inspection, then it will be torn down. We may survive but it will be only barely. And that’s not the life we would like to be living.

We have to do more than simply insist that others follow the teachings of Christ. We must also live the teachings. It is why so many people look at the church and then leave it, or as I mentioned earlier, cannot see how the church, the very organization that changed the world two thousand years ago and was instrumental in preventing a bloody revolution in England yet was able to make major changes in social policy, can even begin to think about making changing today.

But we don’t want to live by Christ’s teachings. We have no desire to have our lives be a mirror of Christ. It isn’t that we can’t live that way; it is that we don’t want to make the effort to do so.

We have forgotten that the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is not about retaliation but rather the measure of punishment. And then Jesus comes along and says that we should turn the other cheek when we are hit. In this world where we see peace enforced by military might, this is a totally unacceptable action. When we are asked to take someone an extra mile, we complain about having to even go the first mile. And we certainly aren’t going to give someone our best coat when they are suing us. We are not even crazy about Old Testament rules that tell us to leave something for the poor and the widows.

It just isn’t right that we should share our wealth with others; we earned it and we should keep it. We can still follow Jesus, even when He said otherwise. And we can forget that part about loving our enemies as we do our friends. Let’s face it, there is a part of us that finds joy when our enemies suffer and we often take great joy in spreading rumors and gossip about them.

We have succeeded in somehow transforming the Gospel into a description of the world when we were supposed to change the world into a description of the Gospel. When we view the Gospel in light of the world, we will find it difficult, if not impossible to make changes in the world. We have to see the world in light of the Gospel.

Christ did not come into this world as the revealer of an ideological system that was to be superimposed on society but as one who, in the manner in which He gave of Himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. Jesus came as one prepared to risk His truth and life within in the openness of a secular world. We have to be able to do likewise; we cannot claim that we have no established right over other views but in which we accept responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. But this also requires a certain degree of readiness on our part to recognize both the creative and destructive forces surging in history. And, while we would much rather focus on the creative forces; we also have to realize that destructive forces lie close at hand. This means that while we may readily accept the responsibility to witness, we must also be ready for the struggle against the forces that always gather in opposition to Christ (adapted from “Faith in a Secular Age” by Colin Williamson).

I have somewhere in my notes a story about Clarence Jordan and his daughter. It seems that there was a young man in school who had taken to giving Clarence Jordan’s daughter a hard time. Now, despite his aversion to violence (he sought non-violent means of opposing the Ku Klux Klan), Clarence Jordan was prepared to face this young man in a manner that was decidedly not non-violent. But his daughter said that she would take care of it in her own way; which is what she did.

When he asked her how she resolved the issue, she said that every time this young man came close to her, she simply began gushing with an over-abundance of adolescent love. Pretty soon, he was getting ribbed by his friends about his friendship and that was enough to keep him away from her. As she told her father, I simply did what Jesus would have done and loved my enemy.

For each one of us, there comes a moment when the words that we studied in Sunday School and committed to our hearts and minds through confirmation and membership class must become more than simply words. They must be the core of our lives, our new guidelines for living in this world. As Jesus puts it bluntly in the Gospel reading for today, it is time that we grow up.

His call from the very first day of His ministry was to repent and begin anew. He echoes that today when He tells us to live out our God-created identity, to live generously and graciously towards others, the way that God lives towards us.

We are called this day to a new life, to a new set of guidelines. To ignore them, to continue in our present live is to say that we desire no better future. To cast aside our present life and seek a new life in Christ is to say that we seek a better future. We have been given the guidelines for that new life; shouldn’t we seek that better future?

The Problem With Change


I am preaching at the combined service for the Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church (US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922) and the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928).  The service is in Highland Falls at 9:30 and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.  The Scriptures for this 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 4 July 2010, are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, Galatians 6: 1 – 16, and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

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If I were to say that the church today, be it an individual church of any denomination, the United Methodist Church as a whole, or the church in general, was in trouble, I doubt very seriously that anyone would disagree with me. While some individual churches are doing well, the general state of the church in this country is not very good.

For a while earlier this summer I was reading summaries of the Annual Conferences as they appeared on the United Methodist News Service link on the Methoblog. I discovered that three Annual Conferences in this area were ceasing operation and either forming a new combined Annual Conference or merging with neighboring Annual Conferences. I gathered from my reading of the various reports that there is still a decline in the membership of the United Methodist Church though I got the impression that the decline was slowing down. That data will take a couple of years to determine; data on church membership can be found at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.6072819/k.2327/Membership.htm#decline.

But it is the view of the church outside the walls of the church that also speaks to the troubles of the church. There are those outside the church who see religion as just another superstition; they see wars fought by mankind in the name of God as evidence that God is an angry and a violent God. They hear the pronouncement of tired old men and conclude that the church today is sexist, repressive, and autocratic. They see a church seeking to control the minds of the people through ideology and ignorance. They see a church out of touch with reality.

And you know what? Many times, they are right. What was it that Paul wrote to the Galatians in today’s Epistle reading? Watch out for those who would impose a legal structure on you as a justification for what they did to Christ. See how they insist that you follow the law while they are free to do whatever they please.

When I look at the church in general, I see a church that is monolithic in structure, many times dedicated to the continuance of that structure. And it is not always a corporate mentality; it is the mindset and desire of the people in many individual churches to maintain the status quo, even in the face of impending doom. It is almost as if such churches are defiantly saying, “we have done it this way for two hundred years and we are not about to change now.” The only problem is that today, the sanctuary is barely full, there are virtually no young people in the congregation and Sunday school is often times a fond memory. There are a number of such churches in this district and, unless something is done immediately, many of these churches will be closing their doors in the next five years.

And yet there is evidence to suggest that the population of this area is increasing. I cannot speak to this side of the Hudson River and its population growth but I know that there is steady increase in population on “my side” of the river and it is in areas where there are United Methodist Churches. If there was ever a situation that mirrored the Gospel reading for today, it is now but to make the Gospel reading a reality will require change, change on the part of the denomination and change on the part of the churches in the area.

Now, I know what people will say when they hear the word “change.” If they don’t run out of the sanctuary screaming in panic, they say that they cannot change because and any number of excuses is given. I am reminded of the United Methodist version of a modern classic joke.

“How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“What! My grandmother knew Thomas Edison personally and she gave this church that light bulb and you want to change it!!”

If there is something that we fear more than fear, it is change. We have created a comfort zone in our churches today. When we come to church, we are insulated from the problems of the world and get a brief respite from them.

We have created a religion where God is our servant and is supposed to do what we ask rather than one where we are the servants doing what is expected of us because we are God’s children. We are like Naaman, who when Elisha told him to go wash seven times in the Jordan River, got angry and threw a temper tantrum and said, “I thought that he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand on the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease.”

Naaman wanted a cure that reflected his stature and power, not a cure that was based on the person. He wanted God to be his servant instead of being the servant of God.

But when we do that, when we make God our servant, we become blind to the many ways that God can be working in the world. Putting God inside the church walls and keeping Him there makes Him exclusive, available only for the so-called chosen ones. And keeping him there provides a relief for those who fear radical change.

As some of you know I grew up in the South and I saw the effects of segregation. Now, I will admit that I don’t recall what many of the pastors preached back then but I do know that I went to the same Methodist church as George Wallace did when he was governor of Alabama in 1962. In retrospect, I never did understand how it was that any minister could, in good conscience, oppose the Civil Rights movement at that time. But many, both in the North and in the South did, and they still maintain those same conservative, exclusionary, repressive attitudes today. When you read about Jesus eating with sinners and you see ministers and congregants proclaiming that sinners are not welcome in their church today, you have to begin wondering what is going on.

I will say that I was fortunate because I was given opportunities to explore my faith and come to my own conclusions about the church, the denomination, my faith and my relationship with Christ. It is an exploration that has continued on to this day. Not everyone has been given the same and in so many churches where things are “fixed”, we see the people leaving.

There was a time when I thought Mount Moriah was a street in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. And I never could quite figure out how Paul could be writing to a church in Corinth, Mississippi. And Shiloh was the place of the first bloody battle in the Civil War (surpassed later by Antietam and Chickamauga), not a place of peace or that the battle of Shiloh was named after the Methodist Church on the battlefield.

I grew up, as many of you did, with the King James Version of the Bible as the only available translation. But over the years, as I have heard many proclaim it to be the true Word of God, I have to wonder. What happened to the Aramaic and Greek translations of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? If the Word of the Lord is fixed, why then have there been arguments about what books should be placed in the Bible?

If the Bible is to be the Living Word of God, then it has to be expressed as such. To hold to a 17th century translation with its archaic language is to say that the Bible cannot change. As I mentioned when I read the Gospel reading for this morning, I have been using a translation called The Message. I believe that it is a true translation of what Luke wrote but it is expressed in words that are easier to understand. In the for what it is worth category, someone came up to me after the service where I was preaching last week and asked me about some questions about that translation. She said that she was going to get a copy because it sounded easy to read and understand. Now, as a good old Southern boy, I would use Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels when I could. But the problem with that particular translation is that you have to be familiar with the geography of Georgia.

Our problem is that we do not understand what Christianity is about. Our understanding is based on a structure that came into play some three hundred years after Paul began his mission work. We see the church as more of a corporate entity, a business, than it was some two thousand years ago.

Then Christians were quite content to gather for worship, witness, and service wherever the world would give them the opportunity to do so. The church was designed to fit the conditions of the place. Church organizational structures were very ad hoc and the people were quite willing to take whatever space the world was prepared to give them.

When Paul wrote of the church (as he did in his letter to the Colossians) as being “in every place”, he did not mean that every village had a congregation. Rather, he meant that throughout the Roman world signs of witness to Christ as the Lord of the world had been raised.

If we are to bring life back to the church, if we are to bring the church back to life in society, then we must change things. We must change the way we see the church and that will require that we change what we know about the church, about Jesus, about religion and Methodism, about the world around us and the people who share this world with us. The church cannot be separate from the world if it expects to be a part of the world.

Why did Jesus send the seventy out into the Galilean countryside? Well, in part it was to prepare the countryside for the later work that He would do. But it was, I believe, also a sign to those who followed Jesus that they were expected to to do the work as well. And it is very important that we see that Jesus did not give the authority to continue the work until after they returned and only after He warned them not to let their success go to their heads. As Clarence Jordan translated that passage from Luke, “do not get all hepped up just because the devilish guys gave into you; you should be happy that you’re enrolled in a spiritual cause.” (From the Cotton Patch Gospels translation of Luke)

The church today is expressed in terms of a theology of glory, not a theology of the Cross. We must see our ministry as being one who promotes and tries to practice the compassion, justice, and non-violence that Jesus taught and demonstrated. (From the July issue of Connections) We must free ourselves from the world’s self-assertive ways and be more open to the surprising claims of God that press upon us through our neighbors and the world outside the walls of the church.

And don’t think that it can’t be done. Hear again the words of Paul written to the Galatians, “live creatively” and

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

Don’t tell me that you can’t do it; that you can’t be creative. The fact that two churches are meeting together speaks of a desire to move beyond the routine of traditional worship. But also know that you cannot stop with one new idea. The curse of change is complacency, where one new idea quickly becomes the norm and a radical idea becomes the traditional way of doing things. Yes, that’s hard work and not all ideas are going to be good ones and not all good ideas are going to work.

But think boldly! If you don’t seek new ideas then you will quickly find yourself trapped inside perceived self-boundaries. Change is part of the journey, from where you were to where you are to where you are going. To stop seeking change is to stop the journey.

Consider this – where would we be today if fifty-six men had not gathered in Philadelphia at the end of June and the beginning of July some two hundred and thirty four years ago. Out of that meeting came a document stating that this collection of British colonies was going to try something new and radical. Those fifty-six men, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, fully understood that what they signed would either be a seminal document for the governing of people by themselves or it would be their death warrant.

Their signatures committed them to the process of independence. Without those commitments, the process would have failed.

We are called today to make a change in our lives. The problem with this change is that we are called to commit our lives to Christ and then open our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not required to do so but that is the problem. To not answer the call is to say that you wish your life to remain where it is and as it is; it is tantamount to saying that you wish your journey to end.

To answer the call is to begin a new journey with Christ, a journey of freedom and life.

The Garden We Plant


I am preaching at two churches, Fort Montgomery UMC and The United Methodist Church of the Highlands (Highland Falls, NY) this coming Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.

The service at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church starts at 9:30 am with the service in Highland Falls beginning at 11 am.

Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922
United Methodist Church of The Highlands 341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10  – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43.  Note this has been edited since I first posted it.

(I added the link to “The Lost Generation” on 9 November 2009)

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Over the past few weeks and for the next few weeks to come the Scripture readings have focused (and will focus) on growth. The Gospel readings have been the parables of Jesus planting seeds in gardens and the difficulty of getting the right conditions for growth.

The Old Testament readings have been about the family of Abraham and its growing pains from the man Abram living in Ur to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel living in the Promised Land. Even the Epistle readings, Paul’s writings, have dealt with our own growth as individuals and with Christ.

Against that backdrop, my wife and I have been planting and developing a Children’s Garden at Grace Church (actually, my wife has been doing the work; I get the “fun” tasks of digging holes, moving rocks, rolling up the hoses, and putting the tools away). As we have prepared the soil, we have uncovered stones and debris of every size and shape; we have encountered the remnants of an old foundation, and we have dealt with and removed every sort of weed and unwanted foliage imaginable. I found a rock that I was going to call the “Peter Rock” because of its size until I found one bigger. If nothing else, the work in the garden has made the parables of Jesus come alive. But then again, that is why the parables were told and retold, to make the Gospel message come alive.

It is possible that Jesus could have told the message of the parables from an academic or theological standpoint and without the allegory or metaphors. He could have answered questions about the Heavenly Kingdom and God’s plan for us just has he did with the scholars and priests in the Temple when He was twelve (Luke 2:39-52). But many of those who came to hear Him when He was in the hills of the Galilee would probably not have understood such discourses. They were peasants, shepherds, and farmers; so the stories that they would remember and tell others needed to be stories about peasants, shepherds, and farmers, stories about themselves.

And perhaps that is why the disciples had trouble learning the message. As fisherman, stories about farming and being a shepherd were a far cry from their own lives, background, and knowledge. They understood the call to be fishers of men because they were fishermen. To seek the lost lamb as a shepherd would was a completely different story and one not easily understood by fishermen.

But it seems to me that even today, by the actions and words of the church today, we have forgotten the stories, do not understand those stories, or feel that they are no longer a part of our lives. Recent reports tell us that many people outside the church and even within the church see the church as hypocritical, of saying one thing but doing another. For me, this is not just something that others are saying.

I grew up in the South where people sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” on Sunday and then went out and enforced segregation in the schools and public institutions on Monday.

Nor is it is just something from my past. Reports of young people leaving the church or never coming near it are painfully close to home. One of our granddaughters is not interested in church because of what she sees and hears from those who proclaim to be Christian but who lead lives that are anything but Christian. It used to be that we could say that the reason our children left the church is because they have grown up and are on their own. That is true but it is also evident that the church has driven them away.  (see “The Lost Generation”)

And that can only mean that we have either forgotten the stories, don’t understand them, or they don’t figure into our lives anymore. We may sing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” but we sing them as songs from our childhood. We are adults now and childhood stories don’t count anymore. They are meant for someone else; we have to deal with more practical things. Many people see what is done and said on Sunday as totally independent of what we do the rest of the week. We prefer to think in terms of the world and what the world calls upon us to do. But the world around us, as Paul so often reminds us, is not attuned to the message of the Gospel.

And that is where we fail. The world may not be tuned to the message of the Gospel because we have failed to do what we have been asked to do.  The Gospel reading for today is to remind us, as the previous few readings have done and the readings to come will do, that we are asked to prepare the fields for planting and, when the time comes, harvest the crops. But, for so many, the garden planned and planted on Sunday begins to wither and die on Monday.

Do we not have people today who sow the seeds that grow into weeds in our churches today? By their inaction, indifference, and intolerance do they not choke the growth of the church and its work in the community? Is it possible that those who call themselves Christians are the ones who sow the seeds of mistrust and discord in the garden that we are trying to plant? Unfortunately, the answer for those questions is too often “yes.”

There are those who offer words that sound like the Gospel message but lack the substance of the Gospel. There are those who offer words of encouragement and hope but give little to bring about actual encouragement and hope. There are those who preach hatred, exclusion, and violence and yet dare to call it the Gospel. There are those who would call on the wrath of God to destroy people while God Himself is calling us to help them. The fruits of these words are the weeds that choke off and kill the flowers that should be growing in our gardens.

It is no wonder so many people are leaving the church today. They cannot see the small blossoms of truth and beauty growing in the church’s garden because the weeds have overtaken the garden.

And it isn’t that there are others working to destroy the garden. We don’t always want to do the work that is required. It is hard working in the garden day after day and we don’t want to do that. We like a Gospel message that is easy to listen to and doesn’t require much from us. And we get angry when we are called to do God’s work; why must it be us? We sometimes express the thoughts that Joseph Donders, teacher and chaplain at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, expressed,

Jesus sowed the seed in our hearts and then off he went. He knew that things would not be ideal. There would be birds, droughts, weeds, insects, parasites and blights. Growing the gardens would not be easy but then He gave us the power of the seed itself (from Verse and Voice, 15 July 15, 2008 – Sojourners).

The power of the seed is the Holy Spirit; just as God promised Jacob that He, God, would be there, so too is the power of the Holy Spirit present in the work that we do. But we ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit and try to do the work ourselves. And it is, as Paul pointed out very hard work and in a culture that expects the results now, the promises of rewards later doesn’t fit too well.

 

We planted the gardens several years ago and we are content with what is growing now. We know what it takes to care for a garden and we do not need anyone telling us what to do. At times, it seems as if we know the answers before the questions are asked. And we hold onto our own ideas, ideas that may have worked years before, but are clearly not working today (see “That’s nice, preacher” – the original link didn’t work; I hope this is the correct link). Gardens are not easy to take care of; they require constant work to maintain. Unless you are willing to work in the garden that you planted, it will not grow; the weeds will come back and take over. And all our work is lost.

We can have gardens that remind us of the years past and the ones who have gone on to greater glory (as well we should). But we must also have gardens that speak to the future and what the future offers. As Paul said, our life is not a grave-tending life but one of adventure; our gardens should be full of the anticipation of what will blossom and flourish each year.

We must do like Jacob did in today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau. Esau had threatened to kill Jacob because Jacob had lied and deceived Isaac in order to gain the birthright. When Esau finally understood that he had lost almost everything and nothing that he did would get it back, he vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven is a sign from God that he, Jacob, was not running away from God but to God. In renaming the place where he slept as Bethel, Jacob was saying to the world this is God’s place, this is where my journey begins, not where it ends. We must do the same as well.

We must make a statement that God is present in everything we say and do. Paul speaks, not of our relationship with the world around us in the past and today, but of our relationship with God through Christ for today and tomorrow. Our gardens will not always be free of stones or weeds and it will be a constant struggle to let the garden grow. But that is symbolic of our relationship with God. The garden that we plant and take care of is our relationship with God. And it begins here today.

Why do we come to church each week? Do we come out of habit, trying to tend the garden of our memory when life was good and things weren’t so hard? Life, as Paul wrote in the words that we heard today, is always hard and we should not delude ourselves that it was once otherwise.

Or did we come here today because we want to plant a garden for the future? Do we come because we know that God is here, in this place, and this is our chance to once again be renewed and refreshed by the Holy Spirit so that we can go back out into the world and plant God’s garden? We are called to plant and care for a garden but which garden shall we plant?