“Is this Heaven?”

This will be on the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, August 25, 2019 (the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, year C). Our services start at 10:15 am and you are always welcome.

For me, some of the most iconic lines ever spoken in a baseball movie are, “Is this Heaven?  No . . . it’s Iowa.”  Iowa, as some of you know, is a major part of my life.  But that a baseball game was played in a field in northeast Iowa is not why I appreciate those lines.

Rather, it is that one can find Heaven in unexpected places.  Heaven has always been a special place, often defined by tradition.  But when you begin your ministry in the foothills of the Rockies and the better part of my ministry has been in the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains, you must have a new definition of Heaven.

We are at a time when many would like to return traditional views; views of what Heaven is and, perhaps more importantly, how we worship and who shall lead us in our worship.  The problem is that a traditional view does not see beyond the walls of one’s mind and blinds us to the opportunities that God lays before us.

God cannot be enclosed by a fixed view of the world or the people who live here. 

God will reach out to all those who seek Him; He will call upon anyone whom He feels can take His Word out into His world.

In seeing Heaven in a field in Iowa or the mountains and valleys of New York or the streets of New York City or El Paso, Texas, we acknowledge his presence in our lives.  And this acknowledgement allows each one of us to be more open to the call of God to take the Word out into the World. ~~Tony Mitchell

“The Cries of the People”

This will be the “back page” for the bulletin at Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, August 12, 2018 (12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).

David’s cry of “Absalom, Absalom” in the Old Testament reading is a cry of pain and anguish.  It is also a cry created by and through anger.

Paul points out that we must be careful when we are angry; that words said in anger may result in something we may not want.  Paul didn’t say that we couldn’t be angry; he just said that it shouldn’t devour your life.  Anger moves our focus away from God and what God desires.

The whole idea that Jesus represented the Bread of Life and that it was available to all who sought Him angered some people.  And that anger prevented them from envisioning the new vision Jesus offered.  It is an anger that is still present today.  It prevents us from hearing the cry of anguish from those in pain or who are lost, forgotten, or excluded.

Until we put the anger away and let Christ truly into our life, we will never be whom we are called to be.

~~ Tony Mitchell

“What Do You Want to Be?”

This is scheduled to be the “back page” for the bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church for Sunday, August 5, 2018 (11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).

In my opinion, we as humans and as a society have been given two great gifts, creativity and God’s grace.  The hardest thing that we must realize is that we haven’t been given those gifts solely for our benefit.  We have been given them to share with others. (from “The Gifts We Have Been Given.”)

I am not saying that you shouldn’t try to be the best you can be, but if you don’t share them, how will others know what you can do?  You may have the skills of leadership and ministry but unless you are in the lector rotation, who knows what you can do?  You may sing like an angel but only heaven knows if you don’t sing in public (choir rehearsals are on Sunday at 9 am).  You may write like Shakespeare but if the words are not published, they have no meaning (that’s a hint, by the way – 😊 ).

David was given the gift of creativity and it was evident in his leadership and his ability to compose poems and songs. Yet, he used his creativity to abuse the power of his position and, in the end, he paid the price for his greed and arrogance. (from “What Do You Do With The Gifts You Have Been Given?”)

To borrow from George Bernard Shaw, ours is to see things that never were and say why not.  Whatever it is that we want to be, the results will be magnified when we use our gifts so that others come to know Christ.                                                       ~Tony Mitchell

“That One Line”

This will be the back page for the August 20, 2017 bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  It is based on the lectionary readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A.

Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will. A paraphrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s principles by Eric Metaxas, his biographer.

If there was one line in the Bible that defines my life, it is Matthew 15: 27.  Oh, there are other lines that have meaning but this verse defines my life.

In 1969, I met with my pastor for communion before going home for spring break.  This was not the formal communion of Sunday morning but more of a conversation between a young student and his pastor.  

In our conversation, I expressed an objection to the words which are found on page 12 of our hymnal, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”, words that echo the words of the Canaanite woman whose faith was rewarded that day.

I came into the chapel that day with an understanding of faith but not of God’s grace.  But when I left, I understood what God’s grace meant and what that meant for me as a Christian and an United Methodist.

What I do with my life does not get my God’s grace or mercy but are the duties of a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

By God’s grace and mercy and through faith, we have been given a great gift.  It is what we do with that gift that will define who we are.

“The Hardest Thing In The World”

A Meditation for 9 August, 2015, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51

What is the hardest thing in the world to do? I was going to say that growing old may very well be one such thing but that is something that we cannot avoid doing. Still, accepting the challenge of growing old and keeping pace with the world can be very hard.

It is quite easy, I think, to stay with the ideas that you developed when you were young and life was easy. But life and society keeps on changing and the ideas of our youth may become quickly outdated. That doesn’t mean that we need to go with the flow, as it were, because it can be very difficult keeping up. But we also need to know that things do change.

This morning I was listening to the news and one analyst pointed out that the existence of Twitter had changed the political landscape. Were it not for Twitter, many of us would have waken on Saturday, August 8th, to hear the comments on one person. As it were, the use of Twitter took us past the initial comments and onto the reaction and action. Now, for the record, I don’t have a Twitter account though I do have a Facebook account (and I get as much news from my Facebook as I do from television and radio).

This is not to say that we all need a Twitter account nor do we need to get on Facebook but it does say that we need to realize that the world outside our own walls may be a little bit different from the world we live in. And this leads us to contradictions.

Michael Lerner, in his book “The Left Hand of God”, pointed 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 (adapted from “The Vision Of Hope”).

We are quite willing to accept the ideas of others without questioning simply because what is said, truthful or not, fits within our view of the world. And we cannot understand what is happening in the world when it does not fit our view of world, especially when it has been reinforced by the words, thoughts, and actions of others.

The church today is not exempt from this struggle. Many people, if pressed, would say that they don’t understand what is happening to the church today but only because they still see the church in terms of what it was when they were younger. It is perhaps hard, if not difficult, to even think of the church being more than just a one or two hour event on Sunday with perhaps an occasional social event once a month. They cannot see that the church existing outside the walls of the building or allowing others to even enter “their” church. Those are things that are simply not done.

Those who heard Jesus speak of the Bread of Life and what that meant had a hard time understanding what He was saying because they saw Jesus only in terms of being Joseph’s son. They saw a carpenter’s son and carpenter’s sons were not capable of profound statements. And this carpenter’s son had a habit of being with the wrong people of society. Clearly, Jesus had no business proclaiming any sort of message about the meaning of life and our relationship with God.

Today, our problem isn’t that we that we don’t understand what Jesus said two thousand years ago; it is that we think that those words only applied two thousand years ago. The hardest thing in the world is to understand that is our view that needs to change; the message is still the same.

We cannot preach the Gospel message unless we are willing to understand that is a message for all the people. And we cannot force people to accept the message unless we are willing to live a life as the early church lived, one in which all are accepted. We cannot follow Christ if we are not willing to go out into the world. And that is the hardest thing in the world to do, to leave the life and world that we would like to be in and go out into the world that needs our presence.

““From Which Direction Does The Ministry Grow?”

Meditation for August 24, 2014, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1- 8, Matthew 16: 13 – 20

This is for this coming Sunday.  I am trying to get back into a writing mode.


In 1970, while I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State University), there was a transfer of power in the office of the President. But this was more than simply a change in the person who was in charge; it marked the beginning of a change in the attitude and perhaps the intellectual direction the college was taking.

When I began classes at Kirksville, it was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College and its primary goal was the preparation of teachers. In 1968, the “Teachers” part was dropped, though I suspect that the purpose and goal of the college remained the same. Ultimately, the goal changed and the name changed to reflect that change. I think this all began when Charles McClain became President of the college in 1970.

Now, during the first four years that I was at Kirksville, three individuals served as President. I knew who each of them were but I had never met them and the odds were very good that I would never actually meet them.

Each one of those three gentlemen operated on the theory of an “imperial presidency”. They may be on the campus but they, to the best of my knowledge, never interacted with the students and with only limited interaction with the faculty. The only time that they may have interacted with the students was on those occasions when they ate in the private dining room off the student dining room in one of the dormitories.

So, for some reason, when Charles McClain became the new President of the college, I decided that I would invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dormitory one evening. And with this in mind, I went over to his office one afternoon, found that he was free for a few moments, and offered the invitation for him to be my guest that evening for dinner. Much to my surprise, he agreed.

As I recall, I went about my business for the rest of the afternoon and then came back to his office around 6 or so to meet him and walk across the campus to the dormitory cafeteria. I do not recall what we talked about that evening though it was probably about college life. What I do remember is that no one recognized him as the new President of the college and assumed that he was my father.

Even the cafeteria workers, employees of the college, did not recognize their new boss. And quite honestly, that would have been expected. The overall “bosses” of the college never interacted with the staff and the only adults that came to dinner with the students were the parents. So it would have been reasonable for them to think that this gentleman in the suit accompanying me to dinner was my father and not the President of the college.

I cannot say how much change happened after that evening. The college would become a university in a couple of years and then ultimately drop the direction from its name when its mission and direction were more clearly defined. But something had to change when the new President did something that none of his predecessors (or the ones that I knew) had ever done.

In the 1980s we would see changes in the business world that spoke of new management ideas, one of which was the involvement of the top level managers in the day-to-day operations of the organization.

Now, I have written about this before (I told the dinner story in “What I See” and the nature of change in “To Search For Excellence”) but it bears repeating, especially in light of the situation that the Israelites face in the Old Testament reading for today. When the upper levels of an organization do not know what is going on, that organization is really in trouble.

And what studies on excellence have shown time and time again is that the best change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. And if upper level management is going to embrace change in the organization, then they must be actively involved in the process. They cannot simply make a decision that change will occur and then expect it to take place.

The United Methodist Church is faced today with perhaps two problems. But being an aging church is, in my opinion, not one of the problems, provided you see age as a number on the calendar and not a state of mind. You can be young according to the calendar but have a relatively old state of mind. And this is evident in how they view the world.

Too many people in positions of management and/or power hold onto a world view that is outdated and limited. These individuals view the Bible as a fixed and unchanging law book. Theirs is a view of a world some two thousand years ago, when knowledge of the world was limited.

The second problem is that the size of the United Methodist Church makes it impossible to facilitate change and almost encourages a top-down model of operation.

But such models very seldom work and by the time the instructions are delivered from the top to the bottom, the meaning behind the instructions is lost. Now, I am fully aware that the only way the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, could receive the Ten Commandments was from the top down. But later on, when it came time to implement laws based on the Ten Commandments, then things got confusing.

Second, I also recognize that not much can be done about the present structure of the United Methodist Church. But we can either be bound by the structure, in which case, we lose, or we can, at the lower levels, where all the fun is, take it upon ourselves to do what it is that must be done, remembering the wonderful quasi-biblical phrase that is is better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission. And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that if any one of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church were to wander into my church on some Sunday, I probably wouldn’t know who he or she was. But that wouldn’t stop me from introducing myself and finding out if they needed anything or information about the church.

When you read the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, you can quite easily get the impression that the Pharaoh had no clue why the Israelites were even in Egypt. And because he did not know why they were there, he had ever reason to fear them. What happens when change is occurring at the lower levels of the organization and the upper levels of management don’t know what is going on?

The same is true for the United Methodist Church today. We still hold to a view that everyone should be in church on Sunday and when they are somewhere else, we get worried and scared. But we have forgotten the mission of the original church and what it is that we are supposed to be doing as people who have chosen to follow Christ.

All the talk about splitting the church over sexuality only amplifies the one problem that I mentioned above; an outdated and limited world-view. And as long as we think that limiting who can be a part of our church, we are showing our age and that we don’t know the mission of the church.

We can, if we want, wonder who the next Peter might be. Who will be the person upon which we can build, or in this case, rebuild the church? Quite honestly, I don’t see another Wesley, Whitfield, Boehm, Otterbein, Asbury, or any one of the many founding fathers and mothers of our denomination stepping forward.

I think it would be folly to look for one person to revitalize and/or change our church. But this isn’t a call for one individual; it is a call for many individuals. It has always struck me that as this denomination has gotten older and bigger, it has forgotten from which the strength of the church came, the laity. And maybe it is time for the laity, individually and collectively to step forward and do what they should have been doing all along.

What was it that Paul wrote to the Romans? Use the skills and talents that God has given each of you to the fullest possible extent? I wouldn’t wait around for someone at the top of the organizational pyramid to come up with an idea and hope that it will somehow work in our environment.

What works well for one church often times will fail in another. It isn’t about the lack of people or the lack of motivation; it is how well one mission idea fits within the scheme of each church. A plan that calls for 1000 people will not work in a church with only 10 members. But the church with 10 members can do a lot if it works with other churches, providing talents and skills that the other churches don’t have.

Not everyone can go on a mission trip but everyone can support a mission trip. But for this to work, the people who go have to meet the people who are supporting the trip. We need to start putting faces on the people that make up the church and not simply put a statement in the bulletin. We really need to get back to our roots, to that which helped the church grow.

Any organization that forgets where it came from is bound to fail. The church grew from the bottom up, with its roots in the soil of its community. Each community is different so each ministry is different. But the results of each ministry, unique and different, is the opening of the doors to the Kingdom for all the people.

So take the words that Jesus spoke to Peter so many years ago and put them in your heart. Each one of us is the rock upon which the church will grow and as it grows from our hearts, with all of our love and care, we can see the direction the ministry will take.

“This New Life”

As noted in the piece I put up earlier (“My schedule for the next few weeks”), this is the message that I am giving for the Friday Vespers in the Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, this evening. The message tonight is based Colossians 3: 1 – 11 with references to Hosea 11: 1 – 12 and Luke 12: 13 – 21.

While I was preparing this message, I was looking ahead and thinking about the messages that I have to prepare for the next five weeks as well. On a couple of occasions the messages will essentially be the same though the venues will change (a listing of these messages follows this message).

But no matter what the venue or where the path that the Scriptures for each week lead me, the goal is, was, and will always be threefold:

  1. What does it mean to be a Christian?

  2. What does it mean to say that one is a Methodist?

  3. What do these statements mean for your life today and tomorrow?

When I looked at what Paul wrote to the Colossians, I thought about the commercial that often ran right after the World Series or Super Bowl was completed.

One of the players for the winning team had been selected as the Most Valuable Player and, during the post-game interview, was asked, “Now that you are the MVP, what are you going to do?”

And the reply was, “I’m going to Disney World!”

Now, I don’t mean to equate Heaven with Disney World but I sometimes think that is the way that many Christians think about Heaven when they accept Christ as their personal Savior.

Now, I have been to Disney World and I don’t think that Heaven is anything like that. I also remember the scene from “Field of Dreams” where one of the ball players (Shoeless Joe Jackson, I think) asks the Kevin Costner character, “Is this heaven?” And Costner replies, “No, this is Iowa.”

I don’t doubt that pain and suffering will be non-existent in Heaven but I am not totally sure what type of life it will be. Heaven may very well be what we want it to be. I hope that when the time comes I will be able to enter Heaven but I also know that if I focus on that life, the life that comes after this one here on earth, then I miss the point about being a Christian.

I may have said or written this before but there was a time when I almost left the church. It still vexes me today when someone tells me, in no uncertain terms, that they are one of the chosen ones and will be in Heaven and that I, because I did not come to Christ as they did nor do I believe as they do, will not.

But doesn’t God tell Hosea, in the Old Testament reading, that He knew each and everyone as an individual? Does that say that our path can be different because we are each an individual?

What I fear is happening today is that same attitude, that a specific attitude and specific knowledge about Christ and Heaven, is the primary force driving people away from the church. More importantly, it is the hypocrisy of those who tell you what to believe and how to believe but whose lives are counter to the Gospel message that keep people away. You cannot say to a person “love your neighbor” when you yourself do not.

Paul’s words to the Colossians speak of a new life, one in which you have cast off all the old ways and begin a new life in and for Christ.

Now, I thought about those words and words that Paul has written to others before and how this type of life puts us outside the box. Our old life, trapped in the ways of society, limits our thinking. We do the same things each day because 1) we don’t know anything new and 2) we are afraid to try new things.

The parable that Jesus told the people in the New Testament reading for today speaks of how we measure our life. In today’s society, despite all the signs that massing immense wealth does little to insure the future, we still seek immense wealth. We fail to realize that 1) it does little good and 2) in doing so, we hurt others.

And we are so afraid of failure that we are unwilling to try new things. But consider this; in societal terms, Jesus’ mission was a total and complete failure. But that was because the people who persecuted Jesus could not see or understand what it was that He came to do.

Christ’s death on the Cross was the ultimate victory over sin and death. Death does not win nor does sin enslave us.

In Christ’s death we find a new life, one that frees us to do creative and wonderful things.

We have a choice today; stay in the present life, knowing that it only keeps us in slavery to sin and leads to death or choose a new life in Christ that frees us and let’s us find ourselves.

My schedule for the next four weeks looks like this:

August 9thGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40

August 17thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 18thGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 23rdGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 24thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 25thRowe United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 11 am) – “A New Calling” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 31stGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16 and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stFort Montgomery United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 9:30 am) – “Guess Who’s Coming For Breakfast” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

My Schedule for the next few weeks

I was thinking of posting something lengthy concerning the changes in Lay Speaking but haven’t made up my mind yet whether I will or not.

The reason for posting that piece is that my district and conference are considering a plan where congregations will evaluate lay servants with regards to the message and presentation. Needless to say, I am not thrilled by that idea because I don’t think that it is appropriate or proper for congregations to evaluate the speaker and/or the pastor in this way. There are other ways that evaluations can take place.

I also don’t like the idea that I will not be the first to see any comments made by the reviewers. But I am not opposed to the idea of review or evaluation; I just think that it needs to be more peer-based.

So I am posting my schedule for the next few weeks and inviting you to either visit wherever I may be or comment on what I post relative to what I will say. Note that I am scheduled to give the message for Friday Vespers in the Garden, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, and Sunday Vespers in the Garden. These are subject to change if other lay servant/speakers wish to present the message (if interested, feel free to contact me).

August 2ndGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – “This New Life” (Colossians 3: 1 – 11 with references to Hosea 11: 1 – 12 and Luke 12: 13 – 21)

August 9thGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40

August 17thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 18thGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 23rdGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 24thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 25thRowe United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 11 am) – “A New Calling” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 31stGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16 and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stFort Montgomery United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 9:30 am) – “Guess Who’s Coming For Breakfast” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

“What’s The Next Step?”

I am preaching at New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church this morning. The service is at 9:30 am and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) are 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.

From the time I took a long-term assignment as a lay speaker way back in 1995 (the Chattaqua Parish in Kansas – see “Hide and Seek”) I have followed the lectionary as the source for my Scripture readings. For those who are not familiar with this term, the lectionary is a set of three readings, generally one from the Old Testament, one from the Letters of the New Testament and one from the Gospel readings. If one follows the lectionary, one can, in a three-year period, cover the entire Bible. We happen to be in Year B of the three-year cycle.

And while we are familiar with the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday, it is my understanding that these readings also encompass the rest of the week and Sunday school as well (which is nice because many of our favorite stories are not in the selections for Sunday services).

Some lay speakers will use certain Scriptures that they are comfortable with but when I found it necessary to prepare a message for a series of weeks that method didn’t work well for me. Now, as it happens, the lectionary that I followed back in 1995 was the Common Lectionary; the scriptures for today are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem but in addition to preparing this message I am also working on a message for next Sunday at the Fishkill United Methodist Church and a message for the Vespers in the Garden series on Sunday evening at Grace UMC in Newburgh. The Vespers message is special because we are also dedicating a cross that was given to the church back in September in memory of 9/11. I hope that you will be able to come up to Grace for this important moment in church and town history.

For the Vespers series, we have always used the Common Lectionary and there are subtle differences in the Common and Revised Common Lectionary. One is that part of the Old Testament reading for next Sunday is the concluding part of the Old Testament reading for today. And that leads me to the title for today’s message.

In theory one can travel back in time and in writing these three sermons I am traveling, at least in thought from next Sunday evening to next Sunday morning to today. So, if by chance, I sound like I don’t know if I am coming or going, at least you will know why. But I hope that you can come up to Newburgh next Sunday, knowing that in part what I say Sunday night comes from what I am saying today.

There are some who believe that the Bible is a fixed and unchanging document; one that we should just leave alone. But such a document quickly becomes something that we read when we have time and interest. But if you feel, as I do, that the Bible is a living document then one can find one’s own passions, desires, thoughts, and feelings in the passages.

That would, I think, be the case in reading the Old Testament passage for today. There are very few people today who cannot relate to David’s cry of anguish when informed that his son Absalom had died. And David’s cry is even more painful when we know that David had specifically told his troops that they were not to harm Absalom, even though Absalom had instigated the rebellion against David. We are not told in the reading for today but it was Joab, one of David’s commanders, who killed Absalom and that he did so because he was sometimes at odds with what David wanted to do.

The death of Absalom effectively ends the rebellion and peace, as it were, is restored to the kingdom. But one has to ask how there can there be peace in a country recently divided. It is a question that has haunted this country for over one hundred years and one for which the Bible doesn’t always provide a clear answer. Or does it?

We are a nation that is still split, not just along racial lines but economic lines and cultural lines. We see war as the penultimate solution and are unwilling to do that which will prevent future wars. We lead lives that are counter to the examples that are given in the Bible for us to follow.

Paul writes to the Ephesians and speaks of changing the way one lives. Paul says that it is perfectly acceptable to be angry but don’t let that anger serve as fuel for revenge. And yet, when we are attacked, when we are slighted or wrong, our thoughts are to seek revenge. Paul speaks of getting an honest job so that we can help others who can’t work; yet we often express the thought that everyone is on their own when it comes to work and success. When President Kennedy spoke before the press following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, he spoke of victory and success having a thousand fathers but failure was an orphan. We have taken that statement and made success the product of individualism and those who do not succeed as failures.

We have taken the very notion of Christ’s love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, as unconditional and made it conditional. We expect something, much if one listens to many of the television preachers, in return for our acknowledgment of God’s love.

We ignore Jesus’ words about who is in charge and expect that we, mere mortals, are capable of discerning what God is thinking. And we will not allow others to have any thoughts about Jesus, God, Christianity, or religion unless they are exact carbon copies of our own thoughts and beliefs.

We are at a point in time, a place in history, where we must make a choice. We know the numbers, we know the prediction that tell us that unless something is done and done soon, the United Methodist Church will be, quite literally, extinct within twenty-five years. There are those today who believe that religion will die out in that time frame as well.

Yet, those who predict the demise of religion offer nothing better as an alternative. At least the prophets in the Old Testament offered an alternative, even if the people often times ignored them. I would agree that any religion which speaks with more of a human voice or which offers alternatives that are different from the scriptures that they claim to derive their authority from probably deserves to die.

Jesus pointed out that the religious authorities of His day were not the one’s in charge, even if that was what they told the people. Christ came to this world, not to follow His own will or do what we would have Him do, but to do God’s will..

We cannot begin to discern God’s will if we are bickering amongst ourselves or relying on others to direct our path. The one problem that I have with current thoughts in the United Methodist Church is that those who lead the church have an absolute and true understanding of what must be done to revitalize the denomination.

I also know that one statement will get me into more hot water than anything else I may say. I can hear the voices of my mother in one ear and my father in the other saying, “Tony, don’t rock the boat. Go with the flow and don’t cause trouble.” But if Jesus had not rocked the boat some two thousand years ago; if Jesus had not challenged common opinion about the poor, the sick, the forgotten people, and the oppressed, where would we be today.

If John Wesley had merely taken the assignment as an Anglican priest and just did his parish work, would we even have a Methodist Church today? I wrote a piece the other day that I hope gets published. In it, I used the quote that Edward Kennedy used when he eulogized his brother Robert, “he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

I am reminded that John Wesley’s answer to the lack of health care in 18th century England was the establishment of a health clinic and the publication of a book of medical cures. He saw people in debtors’ prisons because they could not pay their debts (something which is returning to this country today) and he established the first credit union. He saw the need for children to be educated and he helped begin the first Sunday School. And when there was a cry for people to bring the Word of God to the colonies, he sent men over to lead the ministry.

The answer to the crisis before us lies, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, not in the stars but in us. We must look around and where we are today and ask what it is that we can do, no matter how many or how few we may be, to bring the Word of God to the people of this community. We must look around and ask what are the needs of this community and how can we, individually or collectively, as one group or with others, provide the solution.

I heard a quote the other day that intrigued me: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Part of the intrigue was that I misunderstood who said it. I thought it was Arthur C. Clarke but I determined, with the aid of modern technology, that is was an individual named Joel A. Barker. I have never heard of this individual but I discovered that his claim to fame is that he took the notion of the paradigm shift, first proposed by Thomas Kuhn in relation to the idea of scientific ideas, and applied it to business models.

While I find that idea interesting, I also know that many individuals use the term “paradigm shift” without knowing what it means or involves. What I do know is that Jesus Christ offers a radical new idea, a paradigm shift if you will, to those who are willing to follow Him.

He speaks of the Bread of Life, of the sustenance that leads to eternal life. He offers each and everyone who takes of this Bread the opportunity for eternal life. This is the penultimate paradigm shift; it transforms our lives from a mere day-to-day existence to one that can change the world.

Some will hear this offer and ignore it. Some will hear this offer and say that one person can never change the world. But Jesus was one person and he did in fact change the world. That we are here this morning is proof of that. There is a proverb that basically states that life is a journey that begins with a single step. What shall your next step be? You can choose not to follow Jesus today. It is the safe bet because you know that the world will not change and what was out there when you came here this morning will be there when you leave.

Accepting Christ, choosing to follow Him down whatever road it may lead, does not meant that world outside changes. But you will have changed, changed in a way that others will see. In your words, your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions, people will see that Christ is a part of your life. They will see the love that God has for each one of us and they will want to be a part of that. When you care for someone because they are in trouble or need and not for your own gain, the world will begin to change. So we begin with a step; what is your next step?

“Signs (1997)”

This was the message I gave at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church (Brighton, TN) for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), 3 August 1997. I am pretty sure that I used 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35 as the Scriptures for this Sunday. 

Note – in editing my files I see that I had posted this as the 10th Sunday after Pentecost but have it listed in my preaching record as the 11th Sunday.

When I first read the scriptures for this Sunday and the comments by the people to Jesus about seeing more signs, I thought about a song from the 70’s entitled “Signs” by the Five-Man Electric Band. In the song, the opening lines are “signs, signs, signs, everywhere there are signs.” And as we drove up to Pleasant Grove this Sunday I thought about all the signs that we saw along the side of the road, including the various signs churches has.

In the song, one of the signs is about keeping trespassers out and the second sign mentions that “long-haired freaking people need not apply”.

In response to this second sign, the lead singer sticks his hair up under his cap and goes into apply for the job. The owner of the business indicates that the job is his because he looks like a fine-upstanding young man; to which the singer pulls off his cap and exposes the business owner for a hypocrite.

Each day we see a lot of signs, signs that tell us which direction to take, when to stop, when to go. We see signs in stores telling us what the prices of various goods are. Of course, some of these signs are also designed to get us to buy certain products.

And in a broader sense, that is the way our life is today. We see signs but the meaning that we read into them may not be what the sign is all about. Last week, there was a TV show about the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they could come true in the year 2000. The broadcast was last Wednesday because there were 1000 days until the next millennium. As each day brings us closer to the year 2000, we hear more about the coming millennium.

But this is also an example of how we can misread signs. The next millennium does not start on January 1, 2000, but one year later on January 1, 2001. So every one who puts stock in reading the signs is going to be off by one year. As Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians, we must be careful and avoid the trickery and deceit of others.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

Now I am not saying that those who think the next century starts in 2000 are deceitful or otherwise; it is just that their information is wrong and we must be careful about what we do with false information. For those who feel that the end times are approaching, Christ himself told us that we should always be prepared for His coming because we cannot know when He might come again.

The prophet Nathan came to him and told David a story about two men.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he come to him, he said, “There were two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his won sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Instead of selecting a lamb from his own flock, the rich man took the only lamb of the poor man. David saw the injustice in such an action and demanded to know the name of the rich man so that he could be justly punished.

David saw the signs but did not know what they meant. Can you imagine David’s shock when Nathan pointed out the he, David, the King of Israel and Judah, was the guilty man for having stolen the wife of Uriah from Uriah and then ordering Uriah to lead his men into battle knowing that Uriah was certain to die.

“You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, say: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

Nathan made it very clear to David that his punishment would be as severe as what David proposed for the rich man in the parable.

To the people seeking Jesus that day in Capernaum, the miracles they had witnessed, the feeding of the multitudes, the healing of the sick were all signs that Jesus was the king they longed for to lead them out of the oppressive Roman rule. Yet, the people did not understand what those signs represented.

The people of Israel saw Jesus feeding the multitudes in the same way that they remember Moses feeding their ancestors during the Exodus from Egypt. But like those who see the year 2000 as the beginning of the next century, the people of Israel had forgotten who it was that provided the manna each day of their wanderings. Because they didn’t understand what they saw and because they had forgotten their history, Jesus pointed out that they weren’t ready to do His work.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous sings but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the father has placed his seal of approval.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

We ask that same question each day.

How are we to know, or find out, what the Will of God is? I do not think that any general answer can be given to this. In clear moral or political issues, we must surely judge and act by the great truths and demands of Christianity; and if we have the pluck to do this, then, as we act, more and more we shall perceive the direction of the Will. That choice, cause, or action, which is least tainted by self-interest, which makes for the increase of happiness – health – beauty – peace – cleanses and harmonizes life, must always be in accordance with the Will of the Spirit which is drawing life towards perfection. The difficulty comes when there is a conflict of loyalties, or a choice between two apparent gods. At such points many people feel unaware of any guidance, unable to discern or understand the signals of God: not because the signals are not given, but because the mind is too troubled, clouded and hurried to receive them. “He who is in a hurry,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “delays the things of God.” But when those who are at least attempting to live the life of the Spirit, and have consequently become more or less sensitive to its movements to have no clear light, they will often become aware, if they will wait in quietness, of a subtle yet insistent pressure in favour of the path which they should take. The early Friends were accustomed to trust implicitly in indications of this kind, and were usually justified. When there is no such pressure, then our conduct should be decided by charity and common sense; qualities which are given to us by God in order that they may be used.

We have to read the signs, not with our own view of the world but with the view that God wants us to have. Yes, this may be difficult.

Are we able to meet the challenges this world presents to us each day? Can we change what seem to be signs of gloom into hopes for the future? All we have to do is see the signs that are in front of us. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus reclaimed us from sin and as Paul wrote

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says” “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

With all the troubles in the world today, there are those who are certain that it is the end time and that God again has forgotten his people. But just as the people of Israel forgot who provided the manna that fed them each day in the wilderness, so too have people forgotten that Jesus told us we would never know the time of His return and that we should always be prepared. But the situation, no matter how grim it might seem, is not what it seems. We have been given the gift of God’s grace, if only we accept what Jesus told us so many years ago,

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Can we do the works of God?

Christian ministry is more than doing good. Ministry is an act of service performed either consciously or unconsciously in the name of Christ. Ministry is Jesus Christ expressing his life through us. It is born, therefore, not in activity, but in solitude, where through the spirit we experience the power of life from within. No one becomes a “minister.” Rather in trust we so open ourselves to the Spirit that Jesus Christ can express his ministry through us. Prayer and ministry, therefore, are indissoluable. In the stillness of meditative prayer we are confronted by God’s loving claim upon us – the most intense intimacy a human being can experience. To know this intimacy we have only to let go. Instead of relying on our own initiative, where we are in control, we discover that we are participating in what God has already initiated within us.

So we have been given the signs, the gifts we need to make this world a better place. And it makes the last verse of the song I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon even more appropriate now. For at the end of the singer’s journey, he came to a sign which said “Everyone welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray.” And to this the singer made his own sign “Thank you God for thinking about me; I’m alive and doing fine.”

The signs are there and you don’t have to look very far to know that God is present.