“What Do You Do?”

This will be on the back page of the bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 29, 2018 (10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).

A few years ago, I wandered into a meeting dealing with chemistry and teaching.  A friend of mine quipped, “Well, speak of the devil!”  What could I say but, “No, I work for the opposition.”

When you stop to think about it, I shouldn’t have had the career as a lay speaker and pastor as I did.  After all, my training and background were in chemistry and teaching chemistry, areas that do not naturally lead to theological leanings (in fact, many think such a background would lead me away from such areas).

But I felt the call to lay speaking and the skills that I acquired as a chemist served to learn and understand other areas, and in that regard, allowed me to travel the roads of Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and New York.

When you think about it, none of the those who Jesus choose to be his disciples were qualified for the job.  But sometimes you don’t want those who are “experts” in their field to take on the task of bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth.  Each was called to that task, not because of what they knew, but because of who they were.

The same is true for us.  We are called by God because of who we are.  God then uses us, with the skills we have, to take us to new places in life.  It isn’t so much that we ask God what can we do but, rather, when do we start?

By the way, I am also the tenor. Tony Mitchell


“The Missing Ones”

Here are some thoughts for this coming Sunday (July 29, 2018, 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B).

One mark of a good leader is how he or she treats those they lead.  In the Old Testament reading for today, Uriah declines the offer for personal leave because the troops he is commanding would not get the same benefit.  It may be that the other Israelite commanders were of such a mind to leave the battlefield if the opportunity presented itself but that is something we do not know.

Even without being named, Uriah’s troops were a part of the narrative.  Now, we have all been taught that Jesus fed the multitudes not once but twice.  Still, the numbers that we are told were present only counted the men; any women or children that would have been there would not have been counted.  It was part of the culture of that time that women and children were considered “non-persons”, even though they were there.

The one thing that we know about Jesus’ mission was his desire to bring the missing, the forgotten, and the lost back to God.  It is still part of the mission today, even though there are many who would disagree.

How can we say that Christ’s mission is fulfilled, and the God’s Kingdom is at hand when there are people missing, forgotten, or cast aside?

~ Tony Mitchell


“Which Path Will You Take?”

A Meditation for 2 August, 2015, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35

When the first “Cosmos” television series concluded, Carl Sagan suggested that society was at a crossroads. One path lead to the exploration of the universe and beyond; the other path lead to death and destruction through violence and war. At that time, we were still technically in the Cold War and President Reagan’s rhetoric did not help an image of some sort of nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Of course, shortly thereafter, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet-style communism. Much to the dismay of many, I don’t think that we can create President Reagan for this outcome. Oh, I don’t doubt that he had a part in it but I don’t think that increasing military spending will ever be the answer because, sooner or later, you end up having to justify all that spending and that means going to war.

It is now some forty years later and we are again, I think, at another crossroads. And while one path perhaps leads to new discoveries, the other is still a path that leads to destruction. We are a society that still believes that the answer to violence is violence and we are becoming a society where concern for the other person is minimized. It seems to me that the rich and powerful will do whatever is necessary to hold onto what they have and to continue getting more, no matter what the consequences of their actions might be. And if we continue on this path, if we continue to hold onto the notion that we must hold onto what we have and gather more, then there will come a time, when there won’t be anything left.

Think about it; if one person gathered up all the resources in the world for themselves and allowed no one else to have anything, either nothing would get done or the other people would rise up in revolt.

The time is now to make a decision, not to try and gather everything we can for ourselves (and Jesus told at least parable about the outcome of such actions) but rather to insure that everyone has enough. And we have to realize that all the material stuff that you gather but will never use can never provide the solace and comfort that your spirit and soul needs.

And if your spirit and soul are not comfortable, there is no way that you can discover new things or seek new ideas.

Jesus spoke of the Bread of Life, the food that would feed your spirit. What we have to do is find ways to feed the spirit and soul of the people. We don’t have to lead them to Christ but show them the way. We cannot force people to follow Christ but we can show them the way.

So, as we come to these crossroads, we have to make a choice. One will give us a good life but it is a life that will be limited; the other choice will lead to a good life that goes beyond what we can see or envision. Which path do we take?

“The Path That We Walk”

The title for this message comes from my initial thoughts after reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians encouraging them to get out and walk on the road that God has called. For most people this is and can be a very daunting task; the road that God calls for you to walk may not be the road that you want to walk. The road that God calls for you to walk may not a smooth paved road but one filled with unknown dangers. And it is entirely possible that you will not even know the destination that lies at the end of the road that you will walk.

As we gather tonight, the Mars rover, “Curiosity”, is preparing to land on Mars. It is a special landing because there is a camera on board the rover and we should get video of the actual landing. There is danger in this because we are not controlling the landing, relying on computers to accurately guide the rover to a landing somewhere on Mars. There is a time lag of some 14 minutes so we are not able to immediately make changes in the path of descent. The only other alternative would be to have send humans on this flight but we have sort of decided that no human will go beyond the orbit of the moon for some time to come.

Our history of sending spacecraft to Mars is a checkered one to say the least. In the history of space exploration, our ability to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars has proven to not be very good. We have lost more spacecrafts than we have landed, so each attempt at landing is risky at best. And many times we don’t know why the landing failed; though I sometimes wonder if those who might live on Mars don’t want us bothering them. 🙂

I am looking forward to watching the video of the landing when I get back home, on the assumption that “Curiosity” landed safely and we are able to see videos of the landing. But I truly fear that if this landing is a failure, there will be cries from many that we need to stop wasting our money on such foolish projects. There are some who have voiced their opinion that, no matter whether the landing is successful or not, it is a waste of money.

I cannot help but wonder why, when the subject of government waste arises, it is always the social and scientific programs that are cut and not the military and defense expenditures. If we do not explore other worlds, if we do not stretch our imagination, it will be very difficult to walk a path other than one that only leads to death and destruction.

To say that you are not the least bit interested in what lies around the corner and down the road a bit is to say that you wish to go nowhere. Perhaps you are happy with the status quo but look around and tell me if what you see when you leave this place is what you want for the years to come.

Still, we do not have to leave home and travel to another planet to walk another path. It is quite easy to do so right here, for all we have to do is stretch our minds and open our imagination. It is common to quote Proverbs 29: 18 (without vision, the people perish) in times like these but perhaps it would be better if we though of Jeremiah 6: 16 instead.

Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls. But the people said, “nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.”

Now, this is one of those readings where you have to know something about what was going on before interpreting the passage. The people of Israel had once again veered from the path of God and Jeremiah was warning them that trouble lied in the direction they were headed. God’s message was to return to the true path, the correct path, the path towards God. And the people would not have it. It was too much work to follow God. And later on God will say through Jeremiah that the people of Israel have nothing but contempt for God’s teaching. And contempt for teaching, for me at least, is the sign of a closed mind and a lack of vision.

The people came to Jesus seeking food and that is what He offered them but it was not the food that they wanted. They were unwilling to see beyond the loaves of bread and fishes that fed the multitudes and see the Bread of Life that was being offered to them. Oh, some will begin to understand, others will know later on but too many of those who followed Jesus that day didn’t want to veer from the path that they were walking.

Time and time again, Jesus offered a new path and yet the people wanted to stay on the same one. We read over and over again in the Gospels of how the people came in multitudes at the beginning but dropped out as they became aware of what was being asked of them.

But it is possible to see the new path. In the Old Testament reading for today, David mourns the loss of his child, the result of a rather ill-conceived union with Bathsheba. Because of his adultery and his lack of attention to his own duties, God has told him that this child would die. And David sought mercy from God, hoping against hope that God would save the child.

And when the child had died, David began his life again but this time the path he walked was a little different. He understood what had transpired and though the scriptures don’t necessarily say so, he decided to walk another path, one that would lead to the birth of Solomon

When John wrote his Gospel two thousand years ago because he thought that it was important for others to know what Jesus said. I would think that he was aware of what Paul was doing and his travels, travails, and punishment. So John wrote his Gospel in part to support the work of Paul.

But John didn’t write those words for Paul; he wrote them for those who would encounter Christ later. He wrote them so that we would know that, no matter what might happen when we walk with Christ, there would be provisions to support our efforts.

Just as we begin a new exploration of the planet Mars and hopefully venture into unknown parts of the solar system, so too do we have the opportunity for new ministries, new ways of making the Gospel message more than just words.

To change the world requires that we change the path that we walk, to walk with God and not away from Him. To walk this path, to change the direction of one’s life, means accepting Christ. And then, having accepted Christ, allowing one’s heart and mind to be opened so that the Holy Spirit can empower you. We have been given the Bread of Life so that we can walk this path. Let us rejoice in that and proceed.

Is There A Good Day To Die?

These are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, August 9th, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 18: 9 – 15, 31 – 33, Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2, and John 6: 365, 41 – 51.

Harry Patch died two weeks ago; he was buried on August 6th. Now, unless you are like me and you listen to the BBC, you probably don’t know who Harry Patch was. He certainly wasn’t important but then again, his death does have some significance. He was the last surviving British veteran of World War I. If Wikipedia is correct, there are now five individuals still living that can be identified as World War I veterans.

What I found interesting about Harry Patch is that 1) he requested that “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” be sung at his funeral and 2) that his experience in the war left him with very bitter memories. I cannot say that he was a leading voice against war but when you read about his thoughts and his nightmares, you come away certain that he did not like war and all of the accompanying horrors that came with it. As he described in a documentary a couple of years ago, you can recreate the sounds and lights of a battle but you cannot recreate the fear.

The theme for the funeral will be “Peace and Reconciliation” and, in addition to the pallbearers who are soldiers from what was his regiment, the coffin is to be accompanied by two private soldiers from the armies of Belgium, France, and Germany. I do not know if this date was particularly picked for its significance or for scheduling purposes. I would like to think that it was picked for its significance because it marks the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. If there was ever a day that describes the horror of war and what war can do, it would have to be August 6th, with August 9th, a very close and horrible second.

The horror of war and its insensibility is reflected in the Old Testament reading for today (2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 31 – 33). In verses 31 – 33, David learns that his armies are victorious in battle against the rebel armies lead by his son Absalom. But he also learns that among the twenty thousand killed that day was his own son Absalom. Whether Absalom’s death was a tragedy of war or an accident should not be the issue. A son was killed during a war and any parent will grieve over the loss of a child, even though the two may be on opposite sides of the conflict.

Yet, amongst the remembrances and the memories, we still seem to think that war is the only solution. And because war is mentioned in the Old Testament, there are those who feel that war is justified in these times. And there are those, especially today, whose military service is limited or non-existent but yet find it patriotic and honorable to glorify the killing of another human being and who willingly would send another parent’s child to war.

And while it would appear that the troops that we are sending over to Afghanistan may be more of the community helping/building variety, we are still fighting a war that perhaps should not have been fought and was fought for all of the wrong reasons. And I am intrigued by the notion that we are not only fighting a military war or a war against terrorism before terrorism strikes our shores again, we are also fighting a drug war.

As we fight to eradicate the poppy plants in Afghanistan, we take away the main source of income for many of the farmers in that area and force them to join the insurgency to support their families. I am not saying that we should let the farmers grow poppy plants that will be transformed into opium and heroin, just as we shouldn’t let farmers grow coca plants in Bolivia that will be transformed into cocaine. But if we do not provide alternatives that provide an income equal to or greater than these farmers received for what turns into drugs, we are not going to win that war.

Conflict should not be our means to resolving problems. Paul speaks to the issue of what should and should not be said between two parts who disagree (Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2). Should we not also be doing those things that prevent conflict from arising? Paul speaks of telling the truth to resolve a conflict but it is very difficult for one party to hear the truth if the other party speaks with a voice of arrogance or superiority; it is very difficult to speak of the truth when one part of humanity is starving and seeking aid while the other part has plenty but will not share.

The fact of the matter is that those who have little or nothing will listen to those who speak in patriotic terms and speak of the glory that once was theirs or could be theirs, if they will but take up arms and fight. No matter what our response once was, our response today must be different, radically different.

In the Gospel reading for today (John 6: 35, 41 – 51), some complained because Jesus spoke of coming from heaven. Their response was that He could not have come from heaven because they knew His parents. If our world is locked into old ways of thinking, then we will never find answers outside conflict. But if we are willing to see beyond the present, to have a vision for the future and we are willing to work for the future, it may be possible for the words of Isaiah to turn our swords into plows, our spears into pruning hooks and work with other nations to build this world, not destroy it.

Jesus offered the bread of life to those who would partake of it. He did not condemn those who refused the bread. But we who have heard His words and have accepted them now have the responsibility to bring bread to the world; for a hungry person will not listen if the growling of their stomach is louder than the words of the preacher.

Harry Patch was buried on a day when over 80,000 people died in the first military application of a nuclear weapon. His thoughts about war as well as the death of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should remind us that there never is a good day to die.

Jesus offers for all the chance to have eternal life but it means that we must work to see that no one has to die unnecessarily.

How Will You Live?

This is the message that I gave on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 1 Kings 2: 10 – 12, 3: 3 – 14; Ephesians 5: 15 – 20; and John 6: 51 – 58.


I do not know about you all but the first thing that came to mind when I determined that the loss of power was not limited to just our house or the block was that it was 1965 and the “Great Northeast Blackout” all over again. For some reason, the blackout of 1977 didn’t enter the picture, in part because I wasn’t aware of it, as I was the one in 1965 (though I thought that it had occurred in 1969).

The one thing that this most recent blackout, now certainly to go into the history books as the “Great Blackout of 2003” (see “Northeast Blackout of 2003” and other sites for information about this blackout; an interesting, weird, and far-out explanation of “Who caused The Big Blackout of 2003?”, was that society is far more complex that one could ever realize. Most of the time, this complexity is hidden and we don’t even know just how complex our lives really are. But every now and then, things occur which bring the complexity to the surface. And unfortunately, as the events of Thursday showed, it is not always a pleasant revelation. While it is not clear just what happened Thursday afternoon, all evidence suggests that one little incident, lasting between nine and ten seconds completely disrupted our lives for at least one day.

How we deal with such disturbances tells us a lot about ourselves. It is interesting to note that the one common thread among all the stories on this occasion in time was how people reacted and came together as a community. It, of course, begs the question as to why people cannot act like they did last Thursday all the time, but that is not the focus of today.

How will you live and act, what will your focus be when the life you have worked so hard to build is disrupted by something simple and seemingly not related? What will you do when the carefully laid veneer covering your life is removed and you must respond?

Take, for example, the case of Dave Bliss. Lost in all the uproar of other things is that Dave Bliss had to resign as basketball coach at Baylor University. In the investigation of the death of Patrick Denehy, the Baylor basketball player, facts were uncovered that showed Coach Bliss had done a number of illegal things in regards to the operation of the basketball program at Baylor. None of these things had anything to do with the death of Patrick Denehy and Coach Bliss was not implicated in this case. But now the once seemingly bright and shining career of a very good coach has been shown to be built on lies and his career lies in ruins, all because of something over which he had no control. And it is made worse by allegations now coming out that he was trying to use the death of an innocent player to cover the stains of his own iniquities.

Given all that could have been, why would Coach Bliss have chosen such a path? It is a question that is as old as mankind. We find countless cases where someone has chosen a path because it seemed the easiest way to reach the top. But such paths always have hidden traps and are filled with troubles not easily seen.

What path shall we choose to walk? How shall we live?

Those were the questions before Solomon as he looked to his new role of King of Israel following the death of David. Solomon knew that he was not prepared to take over as King; that his age (he was approximately twenty according to some accounts) would work against him. His kingdom was neither small nor limited in population, so it could conceivably have been difficult to govern.

Solomon knew that that if he was to govern in such a way as to command the respect of the people, he could not do it alone. If he was to hold to the path that David had established, even if David had veered from it, he (Solomon) would have to be one with God.

Solomon’s choice was for a discerning mind, one that had the ability to choose wisely and be able to discern good from evil. Given all that he could have asked for, Solomon asked for the one thing, that in the end gave him everything. The Old Testament reading for today tells us that God was pleased with Solomon’s choice and, in return, gave him what he had not asked for, namely the riches and power that went with the position.

Paul’s counsel this day is just as true. Choose wisely how you will live, for to do otherwise will result in evil and foolishness. If our choices in life are not done wisely or are made too quickly, then the results may turn out far different from what we desire. The wise person, Paul points out, sees opportunities to do many things while the foolish misses the chances given to him. The wise person has a plan to fall back on when things go rough while the foolish can only grope, literally, in the darkness around him or her. If the choices we make, the paths that we walk are made with the Holy Spirit with us, then the blessings of life are ours for the asking.

The blackout last Thursday showed us how dependent we are on the technology that is so much a part of our lives. But it also gave us a chance to ponder and ask ourselves what our priorities in life are and what they should be.

Jesus’ message to those on the shore by the Sea of Galilee was one of choice. What shall you choose in order to insure life? What one thing will be there when all else has been taken away? It may not be the typical Methodist message of today but it is central to the message of Christianity handed down from those days by the shore. If you strip away everything in your life, what one thing will be left? What will you have when all else fails? What one light of hope will be there in a seemingly vast sea of darkness that we might find ourselves trapped? You cannot wait until the darkness falls around you to know that you need a flashlight or some candles? What will be there when you need it most?

Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Only when we have come in touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness.

We are free to choose our own lives but we are counseled to choose wisely. We may never again face a situation such as last Thursday’s blackout but there will be times when we will be reminded how fragile our life is and how tenuous our connections are. But we know that how we live will ultimately prepare us for anything we might face. If we choose, like Solomon, wisdom then riches will come. But if we choose a life in which the riches come first, we will be blinded quickly by the light of the gold.

Thomas G. Pettepiece wrote,

My God, thank you for the physical sight to see both light and darkness around me. Thank you too for insight that comes with the vision to tell the difference. I know that my perception of reality, my vision, determines my ability to respond to life, and that the greater my vision, the more fully alive and fully human I can be.

Still I confess that sometimes the smallness of my vision limits my perception of myself, my neighbors, and the world, so that I treat others as less than human and not fully alive — personally, politically, economically, and socially. . .

I need the vision that Jesus gives, that sees no difference between sacred and secular, sexual identity and personhood, ethnic group and worth, economic position and dignity, education and value.

I need the vision to ask the hard questions and to change my attitude and the structures of society where I can. Because of the sensitivity of sight you give, enable me to stand in awe and wonder at life and its possibilities. Help me kneel in humility to worship you and not myself. Lord, hear me as I say, “Let my eyes be opened.” – Amen. (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

The Better Test

This is the message that I gave on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 20 August 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 1 Kings 2: 10 – 12, 3: 3 – 14; Ephesians 5: 15 – 20; and John 6: 51 – 58.


By now you know that my sense of humor is slightly “off the wall.” So, it should come as no surprise to find out that when, as a high school teacher in Missouri back in 1982, I was introduced to the Basic Essential Skills Test or the BEST Test as it was called, my first thought was to create the BETTER Test. Though humorous in nature and by design, I wanted to make a statement about what the type of test we give our students and what we are actually testing them over. (See “THE BETTER TEST”

And while I think it is critical to the success of a school system that students are tested as they progress through school, I think that the manner in which they are tested and what they are tested is far from what it should be.

Education is more than just being able to remember countless facts; it is also about being able to use that knowledge and to develop solutions for problems still unknown today. When we look at society today, we see that many adults are not well equipped to solve the problems they are faced with on a daily basis.

When Solomon inherited the throne from his father David, he intuitively knew that to be a great leader, wisdom and the ability to solve problems were going to be his greatest need. As we heard in the Old Testament reading for today, when God asked him what he wanted, Solomon chose wisdom over everything else. And in choosing wisdom, God gave him wealth and honor as well. And as long Solomon walked in the path of God, he would also receive a long and healthy life as well.

Paul points out that discerning the will of God, of knowing what path to take is not one of emotion or as a matter of feeling but rather through a mental process, of discerning what the Scriptures are telling us. If we allow our emotions or how we feel to rule our lives, we will miss the point of God’s message.

Within the framework of Methodism there is a belief that knowing God is a personal thing. Within that same framework is also the idea or concept that one cannot know God if one cannot understand the scriptures.

Education has always been a part of the Methodist heritage. John Wesley outlined three principles about education and why it was an important part of the church. They were

  1. The search for knowledge must be linked with a quest for vital piety.
  2. Learning must be available to all people.
  3. The purpose of gaining knowledge is to equip the learner for a life of service.

From the beginning, Wesley insisted that “if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then it is certainly the very first they should learn. And why may they not be taught the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of letters at the same time?” Wesley also affirmed the belief that all people deserve an education. In Wesley’s time, education was reserved for the privileged few. Though some Anglican clergy taught basic academic subjects to the children of their parishes, the majority of people — lay and clergy, rich and poor — accepted the concept that the children of working families had a duty to begin earning wages as soon as possible. Many felt that it was a waste of time and money to educate the children of the poor and that to do so would only render them unfit for their commonplace duties.

Wesley saw the effect that this attitude had taken on people and society and he took practical steps to educate the neglected segments of society. In 1769 Hannah Ball started a Sunday school for children who worked during the week. Remember that at that time, it was not uncommon for children as young as 10 or 11 to be working long hours each day in the mines and factories of England. Hannah’s school taught religious and basic subjects such as reading and writing.

In his own writings and publications, Wesley sought to provide learning materials for the common people at inexpensive prices. Wesley’s educational work in Great Britain helped pave the way for laws that guaranteed elementary education for all children. Wesley also emphasized that learning was not an end but rather a means. The aim of education should be to prepare one for responsible service. During the eighteenth century, may educated people used their learning chiefly for personal gain and self-promotion. These people leveraged their educational advantages to promote themselves and educate others. Methodism taught that our advantages obligate us to serve others, helping them to achieve dignity and reach their own potential.

Over the years that Methodism has been in America, the support of education has been there as well. Starting with Francis Asbury first Sunday school in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1783, Methodist Sunday schools have provided many both religious and basic academic studies. Appointed by the church in 1868 to be the secretary of the Methodist Sunday School Union, John Vincent established the Chautauqua Assembly at Lake Chautauqua, New York, for the purpose of training Sunday school teachers. These summer seminars have expanded in scope over the years and have come to include many topics, both religious and secular, but always from a Christian perspective.

And even today we celebrate the development of the mind as a gift from God through our support of over 120 institutions of higher education. This schools range in size from small colleges like Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, and Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where I taught chemistry to more widely known larger universities such as Duke and Northwestern. (And if you know someone looking for a college, let me remind everyone that scholarships are available for United Methodist students to attend.)

As Methodists we recognize that we are both life-long learners, growing in the Christian faith and discipleship, and life-long teachers, helping others to grow in faith and discipleship. Through education, both formal and informal, we can gain the understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what we must do as a result.

Only when we have come into touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations, which we must adhere to, but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness. (From Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

Those who followed Jesus were called disciples. Disciple in the context of the Gospel message for today means, in the most literal sense, “learner.” It can and did include those who were unbelievers, who heard Jesus’ words yet chose not to follow and learn. Those who were in the crowds that day when Jesus spoke certainly were learners. They came to hear Jesus and to learn what they could of this man from Galilee. Not all of them believed in Jesus then; not all believed after they had heard him speak. It was hard for many of them to accept the notion of eating flesh and drinking blood, to open their minds to the greater realm of faith. Because they could not or were unwilling to go beyond the physical aspects of His teaching and see the real issue — namely, that if they believed in Jesus, they would have eternal life — many choose to no longer be considered a disciple, a learner of God’s truth.

That is the essence of education and faith today. Education gives us the wisdom we need so that we can see beyond simple day-to-day occurrences. If we open our hearts and minds to hear what Jesus says, then our gain is beyond measure. If we cannot come to Jesus with an open mind, it is very hard for us to hear the message at all.

Jesus puts before us a challenge, a better test, if you will. Are we willing to go beyond what we can see and know and accept Christ in our heart?

The Vision of Hope

This Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, I am preaching this morning at my home church, Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY.

(1) When I saw the Old Testament reading for today (2), I, as a Southern boy, could not help but think of William Faulkner and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Absalom, Absalom.”

Now, I am not a Faulkner devotee by any definition. Faulkner is often difficult to read because his writing is often dense and filled with intricate prose; not to mention some of the names he invented for the places in Mississippi of which he wrote. The only one of his novels that I was ever interested in was “The Reivers” and that was because it centered on a trip to my home town of Memphis.

Faulkner used his own Southern roots and the settings of northern Mississippi to tell his stories. And in “Absalom, Absalom”, Faulkner connects us to the story of David in today’s Old Testament reading.

The novel focuses on Thomas Sutpen, a poor man born in Virginia, who finds respectability and wealth in pre-Civil War Mississippi. His ambitions, desires, and need for control ultimately bring about his own ruin and the ruin of his family. And when you think about it, that is essentially the story of David and his family in 2nd Samuel – a story of family ambition, destruction, and ruin.

Absalom was David’s third son and, by all accounts, considered the handsomest man in the kingdom. Earlier in the story of David and his family, David’s oldest son, Amnon violated their sister. Tamar. Angered that his father did nothing, Absalom conspired to have Amnon killed.

Whatever feelings David might have had concerning Amnon and his actions, Absalom’s actions really angered him. As a result, Absalom was driven into exile for about three years. But as the time passed, the two apparently reconciled their differences. At the beginning of the passage we read today, Absalom is presumptive heir to the throne.

But Absalom is concerned that he will be passed over for the throne, probably for Solomon. This leads him to launch an abortive coup against David. While Absalom and his forces are able to drive David and his forces from Jerusalem, it is only a temporary victory and Absalom is driven back and defeated. While seeking to escape, Absalom’s long flowing hair gets entangled in the boughs of an oak tree. Even though David gave explicit orders that Absalom was not to be killed, he is killed while hanging from the tree. When David calls for a report on the progress of the battle and the status of his son, he is first told that both are well. When David is told that his son has been killed, we hear the anguished cry of a parent who has lost a beloved child.

We should expect such a cry from any parent but there is another reason for David’s anguished cry. It comes about because David was seeking two mutually exclusive outcomes. He wanted to defeat those, including his own son, who would have removed him from the throne but he wanted no harm to come to his son. In hearing that Absalom was dead, he knew that he had won the war but lost that which mattered most. But, in retrospect, it would have been impossible to accomplish the two goals of keeping Absalom alive and defeating his armies.

Trying to meet two mutually exclusive goals is not unusual. Many of us are faced with the very situation. Michael Lerner, in his book “The Left Hand of God”, points out that we are constantly in conflict with what we perceive to be the values of society and our own values. At times, the two seem mutually exclusive and we do not know how we can be successful in society while at the same time maintaining our own core values. We seek a solution that will allow us to succeed in today’s society while holding onto our own values; we desperately want someone to show us a way to achieve success without sacrificing our souls.

In our struggle, we hear a voice calling to us. It is a voice that focuses on our fears. We readily listen to this voice of fear because, even though it contradicts everything we have been taught, it seems so peaceful and sensible.

This voice of fear tells us that it is perfectly reasonable to seek wealth. It was given to you by God and you need not feel guilty about being wealthy. This voice of fear tells us that poverty is a state of mind and those who are poor deserve their fate. It is not our responsibility to take care of the poor; giving money to the poor and social programs only wastes our money.

This voice of fear tells us that others are to blame for the troubles of society. It is those who have different economic status, different lifestyles, or different skin colors that are to blame for society’s troubles. This voice of fear tells us to cast aside those who are not like us; this voice of fear tells us to build walls, physical or otherwise, that keep them away.

This voice of fear tells us to fight those who would teach new theories or bring about change in society. New thoughts run counter to tradition and when you challenge tradition, society falls apart. New knowledge can only destroy the values of society.

This voice of fear tells us that only military power will defeat evil. This voice of fear says that the only thing evil understands is raw power and those who say that you can counter evil with love are extremely naïve. But violence only generates more violence and those exposed to violence see violence as the only solution to their problems. Terrorism and hatred grow out of violence and when violence is used to combat terror, it can only breed more.

We may be angry with the world but responding in anger will not solve the problems. As Paul reminds us today (3), we should never let the sun set on our anger. He counsels the Ephesians not to use their wrath as a means to respond to sin and injustice. Rather than speaking out in anger and hatred, Paul encourages us, as he did the Ephesians, to seek opportunities to express Christ’s love to everyone.

Paul suggests that we should share with others so that there is no need to anyone to steal or cheat. This passage from Ephesians is much more than a call to stop stealing or being greedy; it is a call to be generous.

It is difficult to accept Paul’s words to be generous, to share what you have with others because it goes so much against the grain of society and what society tells us to do. We are at times like those who heard Jesus speak and saw Him feed the hungry and heal the sick. All they saw was the carpenter’s son and they could not believe or accept that Jesus was the Messiah. (4)

Those who speak with the voice of fear have no vision for the future. Those who speak with the voice of fear only speak of what was; they never offer hope for tomorrow or what could be. Those who speak with the voice of fear seek to imprison us inside our fears, using our fears to limit and restrict the dimensions of life. Those who speak with the voice of fear say they are speaking for God, yet they ignore what God is saying. Those who speak with the voice of fear prevent us from seeing what God is doing in the events of the present time; they want to keep us from hearing and responding to God’s call.

But there is a second voice speaking to us, a voice of hope instead of fear. It is a quiet voice and we sometimes have to strain to hear it speaking to us. But it has been speaking to us and calling to us for a long, long time.

It began when the prophet Isaiah spoke of a child being born, a child who would bring peace to this world. It continued with Micah saying

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war no more. (5)

It was the voice of hope that told the shepherds to leave their flocks and seek the baby lying in the manger in Bethlehem. The voice of hope was heard clearly that day in Nazareth when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and said,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (6)

The voice of hope was heard when Jesus told all who were tired or weak and heavy laden to come to Him. Those excluded by society, be it by economic status, lifestyle, race, or gender heard those words of hope and promise.

The voice of hope calls for us to think about wealth and responsibility differently. Throughout the New Testament, the rich are held responsible for the sufferings of the poor and God is the deliverer of the oppressed. The voice of hope does not just say sell what you have and give it to the poor; the voice of hope also said to use what you have and follow Christ.

John Wesley echoed the voice of hope in thought, word, and deed. When John Wesley was preaching he was earning up to 1400 pounds a year, giving him one of the highest incomes in England at the time. Yet, having determined that he could live on 28 pounds a year, he gave away the balance of his income. He encouraged others to earn as much as they could but not to do it on the backs of others. And like he did, he encouraged everyone to save as much as they could and then give as much as they could. John Wesley sought to embody the words of Christ in his faith and in his action.

The voice of hope was spoken in parables, challenging us to think about what was said and not to simply hear the words. The voice of hope challenged society to be more than what it had been; it challenged society to do more than adhere to the law by living the spirit of the law.

Jesus was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity, in which the faith of that time was so imprisoned. In doing so, He made it possible for the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless to have opportunity. Jesus also warned those who He called to share in this mission that they must be free for the unexpected, such as the person by the wayside. Our response to the voice of hope is not dictated by the world’s expectations (as the voices of fear would require) but rather by our answer to Christ’s calling.

Those who have heard the voice of hope calling to follow and serve have created communities where all are welcome and all is shared. God’s call, the voice of hope, is for a truly open and free society. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have sought to make the teachings of Christ real. The voice of hope calls on us today to respond to the possibilities of a new community centered and revealed in Christ.

There is a vision of hope to accompany the voice of hope. The vision of hope is created by the words of Christ for today that all who eat the Bread of Life and believe in Christ will have eternal live. (3)

It is the sight of the empty cross and the empty tomb; a sign that sin and death can be conquered.

We hear the voice of hope calling us today. It is calling us to be the vision of hope in this world. Those who are without hope will see in us the presence of Christ and will know that there is hope. By our thoughts, our beliefs, our words, and our actions, we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and others will see that the vision of hope is real and true today.


I used material/thoughts from Michael Lerner’s book “The Left Hand of God”, Jim Wallis’ book “The Call to Conversion”, and Colin Williams’ book “Faith in a Secular Age” to prepare this sermon.

(2) 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33

(3) Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2

(4) John 6: 35, 41 – 51

(5) Micah 4: 3

(6) Luke 4: 18 – 21