“Who Are You Following?”

Meditation for 14 September 2014, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, Matthew 18: 21 – 35

There are certain things that I believe. Obviously, I believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior. And in that regard, I hope that my life, my words, my thoughts, my deeds, and my actions reflect that belief.

What is important to understand is that I came to this decision on my own. There were countless individuals (pastors, Sunday School teachers, and others) who introduced Jesus Christ to me but the decision to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Savior was mine and mine alone. It was not, as some think it should have been, in the manner of Saul walking on the road to Damascus but more in the manner of the quiet assurance that John Wesley felt that evening in the Aldersgate Chapel.

So in answer to the question posed as the title of this piece, I am following Jesus Christ. And perhaps that is where it gets tricky. You see, the decision to follow Jesus Christ is what some would call a high reward/high risk challenge. The reward is obvious but some may wonder if the reward is worth the risk. You have to be prepared to help others make the same decision that you have made.

I do not believe that my decision gives me the right to tell someone else what to do. It does mean that the life I live must reflect that decision. I cannot simply say that Christ is my Savior and then lead a life where that seemingly applies only on Sunday mornings. If I do not lead a life with Christ all the time, 24/7 as it were, then it was a limited decision.

And while I can make the argument that following Christ is a better path, I cannot do it with threats and intimidation. And I am sorry if this offends some people, that is what many evangelists do today; they threaten and intimidate people, not provide proof that the path one walks with Christ is the better path.

Evangelism today has become, if you will, an embarrassment to the faith. Meant to bring people to Christ, it is, in reality, driving them away. Evangelists today either pervert the Good News for their own benefit (financial or otherwise) or create a scenario that suggests the outcome of life is fixed and the winners are already predetermined. I said it last week, when you create a world based only on one’s own views of the world and law, be it faith-based or otherwise, you create a quasi-moralistic society, not God’s Kingdom (adapted from “Taking Time To Do It Right”).

And while the style of worship is important, that is not evangelism! Borrowing an old line from “American Bandstand”, if it moves your soul, then that what is important. But what may work for one does not work for others. A preacher in casual clothes is great but then again so is a preacher in a nice robe. (Of course, the preacher who spends several thousand dollars on one suit is missing the point here.) Focusing on the style is called marketing and that is not what it is about.

Evangelism is about declaring the good news about what God is doing in the world today. Evangelism should challenge individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit transform them into new creations. But it is more than that.

It involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It means to call people to participate (nasty word there, don’t you think) in the revolutionary transformation of the world. Evangelism is what Jesus said it was: broadcasting the good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking loose in human history, that a new social order is being created, and that we are all invited to share in what is happening. God is changing the world that is into the world that should be and we are invited to live this good news by breaking down the barriers of racism, sexism, and social class.

Evangelism requires that we declare the Gospel not just by word but also by deed and we show God’s presence in this world by working to eliminate poverty, present unjust discrimination and stand against political tyranny. Evangelism call us to create a church through which God’s will is done, here on earth, as it is in Heaven. (borrowed and adapted from Tony Campolo’s foreword to Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts).

Now, when I think about that discussion of evangelism, I can’t help but think that we aren’t even close to meeting it. It seems to me in so many ways that we are doing just the opposite and then turning around and saying that we are doing in the name of Christ. There was a time a few years back when I thought we were headed in the right direction but somewhere along the line we got sidetracked and perhaps even lost.

I don’t think there is a person on this earth who does not understand that following Christ is a difficult task. For some, the difficulty is so great that they don’t even bother doing it. This has been clear from the beginning when the writers of the Gospels noted how the people who followed Christ got fewer and fewer as the understanding of the message became clearer and clearer. Others have changed the Gospel to make it easier to follow.

I cannot help but think that too many people follow someone because the ideas that person has seem so simple and easy to understand. And while we would like things to be easy, that is not always the case. Peter was looking for a simple and easy way to forgive someone and Jesus offers something a little more complicated.

And what Jesus offers runs counter to what we feel. In a society that demands retribution, Jesus suggests forgiveness. And not just a quick forgiveness but a rather lengthy and extensive forgiveness. Consistently throughout the Gospels, Jesus offers solutions that run counter to what we want to do. As Jesus pointed out in the Gospel lesson for today, we are quite willing to seek mercy for ourselves while denying mercy for others. And in the end, we will find out that approach will not work and our decision to follow is often impeded because such a decision takes us down a path we do not want to walk.

So we look for information and guidance but, in the end, we must make the decision. It is a decision made in the mind and with the heart; it is a decision not just for today but for one’s life.

In the New Testament lesson for today, Paul wrote to the Romans about cultivating new relationships. For me, Paul said that all were invited to the table and we were not the ones to decide if any particular person could or could not come to the table.

And I know that I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to such decisions as that. On more than one occasion, there has been someone whom I may not have invited to the communion rail because of what they had said or done regarding the church. But I was always reminded that it was not my decision about who could and who could not come to the table.

The challenge that we face today is two-fold. We have to rely on others for our knowledge but we are the ones who must make the decision about who to follow. As the Israelites began their journey, they were guided by the Pillar of Fire and a Cloud.

Even if they did not know where they were going, the Israelites understood who they were following and what that decision meant. True, even when they did get to the Promised Land, they did not understand it, just as those who followed Christ for three years did not completely understand at first what was happening that weekend in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. But 1) God never left them and 2) they stayed with the decision.

So, shall you follow Christ, knowing that, while the destination is know, the path we must walk to get there is not an easy one? It is not the only option one has in today’s world. But I do believe that it is the only one in which the outcome is certain and by your thoughts, words, deeds, and actions have a chance to make that outcome possible here on earth as it is in Heaven.

“What Is Fair?”

Here are my thoughts for Sunday, September 18, 2011, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 16: 2 – 15, Philippians 1: 21 – 30, and Matthew 20: 1 – 16.

Note – I will be at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY) this coming Saturday, September 24th, for their Saturday evening worship service. There is lobster and chicken dinner from 4 to 8 with the service at 7 so, if you can, make plans to be there for the meal and stay for the worship. <Contact information>

The one thing that has always amazed me about the lectionary and the Scripture readings each week is how they easily fit into the topics, events, and issues of today. Now, some may say this is God’s plan but I, as you all probably know, have a hard time with that concept. It speaks of pre-destination and no free will on our part, an idea/concept which I know some people gladly accept.

But that also makes the Bible a fixed and unchanging document. And when that happens, it becomes impossible to relate what Jesus said two thousand years ago to what is happening today. And when you cannot relate what Jesus said, you essentially make the Bible and Christianity irrelevant.

On the other hand, if you understand that God gave us the ability to think and make choices, then the Bible becomes a living and breathing document, one that allows us to see paths in this world.

But we must also make sure that the path is guided by the thoughts and words that are in the Bible, not what we would have them to be.

Consider if you will the Gospel reading for today. We read the story about the workers every three years and we get upset about it. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those workers who put in a full day’s effort but, in the end, received the same wage as those who only worked a half of the day or even only worked one hour. If we see those who worked the full day as receiving a fair wage, then those who only worked the ½ day or the one hour received far more than they deserved. But suppose that those who worked the one hour received the fair wage; then those who worked the ½ day or the full day were underpaid.

Of course, in today’s society, where we are apt to see day laborers standing at the corner waiting for someone to come by and offer them even a little snippet of work, we are apt to take the attitude (which I know many people take) that they were lucky to get the work and they should be grateful for what they got and not complain.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites are beginning the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And as will happen each week for the next few weeks, they will be complaining about the travel conditions, the food, and the water.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the people are grumbling about the food, saying that the food was better when they lived in Egypt. Maybe the food was better but they were slaves in Egypt, not free people; and they had made the choice to leave Egypt to seek a better live in the Promised Land.

I am reminded of those who came to this country some four hundred years ago, expecting to see gold lying around just waiting to be picked up. There is one document that lists those who lived in the Jamestown, VA, colony as “gentlemen.” It was a term for someone who wasn’t expected to do hard labor. One can only imagine this gentlemen sitting around expecting the laborers who came on the journey to do all the work and make the colony survive. We know from our history books that the Jamestown colony was in deep, deep trouble because of this attitude. And only when John Smith made some major changes in the social order did the colony begin to survive. And it only truly began when they quit looking for the gold and began working on crops and buildings.

But God provides the people with the necessary sustenance for their journey. He also provides instructions that state to take only what you need and no more. Those who take more find that what the extra that they take is no good when they go to eat it. And on the sixth day, they are told to take a second share because they will be no food delivered on the Sabbath. Those who do not take the second share find themselves without anything to eat on the Sabbath.

I am not enough of a theologian to know but I also think that the instructions that Moses gave to the Israelites about the gathering of the food also included instructions for gathering food for those who were unable to gather for themselves (the infirmed, the elderly, the young).

I can only look around at today’s society and wonder how we would deal with these instructions. Shouldn’t we be allowed to get as much as we desire instead of the amount that we need? Is it fair for some to have more when others have less?

Yes, I still have a problem with the Gospel reading and feel that someone who works 8 hours should receive more money for their work than someone who only works 1 hour. But I also know that there are many who would love to be working right now, even it is only for one hour. That’s why I asked which one of the workers received the fair wage.

Now, I also know that that perhaps the real meaning of the Gospel story is that God’s grace is the same for everyone, even if there are some who feel that they more they do, the more of God’s grace they should receive.

But what is fair? In a world where there are some who would proclaim that their wealth gives them the right to pay in taxes than the people who earn the wealth for them, what is fair?

Should not everyone receive the same basic needs and make sure that all are taken care of? The words of the politicians today, along with the words of many who proclaim Christ as their Savior, run so counter to the words of Paul written to the Philippians two thousand years ago as to not be funny.

Paul tells the Philippians to live a life worthy of Christ. Christ treated everyone equally and fairly and if that is the way He lived, how are we to live today?

I suppose that what bothers me more than anything is that much of the rhetoric of today is couched in terms of Christianity. But the words of Christ, the words of Paul, and the words of the Old Testament are words that speak of equality and fairness; of taking care of the people, not casting them aside. The words speak of taking only what you need and not keeping more than you deserve. Is it not the time so ask when we are going to be fair to all the people, no matter who they may be? Is it not time to live the life worthy of Christ?


As I was writing this, I received notice about Jay Voorhees’ piece – “Get the churches to do it. . . they’ll do anything!”. I suggest reading that piece as well.

“Together or Alone”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2002. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.

That Jesus was a teacher should be fairly obvious. Most of the time He was giving the disciples and followers stories and parables about life. But He also spent a great deal of time questioning. Questions about the parables, about the lessons that they learned. Today’s Gospel reading was an example of such questioning.

Jesus wasn’t so much interested in what the masses were saying but rather what the disciples themselves were thinking. “Who do you say I am?” was the central question. But the disciples, still thinking like the others who followed him, could only answer in terms of the masses, “You are another prophet” or “You are one of the old prophets, come back in another form.” It was still very difficult for them to see Jesus, as He really was, the Messiah; all that it is, except for Peter.

Peter, then known as Simon, has always been characterized as impetuous, quick to move, no matter what the consequence of his actions. Confident in his answer, Simon claims that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responds by renaming Simon Peter, the rock. In naming him Peter, Jesus states this is the rock, the cornerstone upon which the church will be built.

It is important for us to realize that while Peter assumed leadership of the new church, he was still one of twelve and an equal among equals. The foundation of the church was not Peter’s personality but his faith.

Jesus always made sure that we understand the role faith would play in our lives. In last week’s Gospel reading it was the faith of the woman from Sidon that was central to the story. This woman, a Gentile, came to Jesus seeking help for her sick daughter. Though He first ignored her, Jesus ultimately acknowledged her and her faith. It was through her faith in Jesus that her daughter was saved.

These are and have been times when our faith is tested. All around us we see examples that suggest that our faith is not sufficient for the task; that God has forgotten or deserted us. At times like these we are not certain who we can turn to or who we can listen to.

We may turn away from God, feeling that because he has deserted us, there must be other alternatives. But we must always remember that God will never turn away and that no matter how bad things get, He will never desert us.

For the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, things looked pretty bad. The reasons for being in Egypt were long forgotten, both by the Egyptians and the Israelites themselves. And now, because things were not going well, the Pharaoh looked for a reason for the crisis. Because the Pharaoh feared the Israelites, it was easy to blame them for the problems of the country. So it was very easy to have the first born son of each family killed as a means of removing the Israelite threat to Egypt.

So it was that Moses was born. But instead of being killed, Moses is saved. Saved not by just anyone but by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses’ name serves as a reminder that Moses was pulled out of the water at a time when all the sons of Israel were being killed.

God wanted the Israelites to know that even though they were enslaved and far from their home, they had not been forgotten. He also constantly reminds us that we cannot ever be far from him.

Ezekiel had stood up against the evil in his country and had to run for his live. But God reminded Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness and convinced that he is the last, that there were others, that there would always be a small core that would stand up against what was wrong in the world.

Things may seem bleak. I think that it must have been that way for Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness, questioning his call to be God’s prophet. It certainly had to be for Peter, who denied Christ not just once but three times and then remembered that Christ has told him that would be the case. How desolate must Peter have felt to realize that Christ knew him better than he knew himself? But yet, when they met after the resurrection Christ forgave Peter and commanded him to lead the church and take it beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem.

We may see the world and feel that all is lost; there is nothing to be gained by being a part of the world. There have been times in our history where withdrawing from society has seemed to be the way to save the church. During the Dark Ages, it was those monks who had withdrawn from society that protected the treasures of society. But protecting the treasures did not enable the society to grow. That required that the monks ventured outside the safety of their monasteries. And to this day, there is no group of Christians who has been successful in withdrawing from the world.

For when you withdraw from the world in order to protect what you have, you are not able to grow what you have. The Shakers, from whom we get such wonderful hymns as “Simple Gifts”, sought to survive by withdrawing from the world. But the Shakers went the way of all whom sought to withdraw and ultimately disappeared from view. Ironically, though the Shakers as a group are nothing more than a footnote in history, the works they did survive today.

Each person, who seeks to withdraw, choosing to follow a solitary way of life ultimately will find out that nothing is gained. In fact, those who seek solitary contemplation as way of find Christ often find only those things which they wish to get away from.

Being Christ is very much a personal thing. Each person’s relationship with Christ is unique and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. But it is not important that others duplicate what works for some. I think churches fail in today’s society because they insist that everyone follow the same line rather than following Jesus. This was certainly the case with the Pharisees and Scribes; they were more interested in people doing what they perceived was the law required rather than what God required.

Paul speaks to the uniqueness and differences of individuals in his letter to the Romans. Do not look upon your way as the only way but one of many, he told the Romans. Remember that we are a community of believers, bonded together by the single fact that Jesus died for our sins, and united in our being able to use all of our skills to accomplish the goals of the church.

Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The battle for freedom is a never-ending battle. Paine was writing of a political freedom. But now we are faced with another battle; the battle for our own soul. The question is how we will face the struggles before us, be they internal and only know to us individually or external and the ones we face as a society. We can face them alone and know that we will lose the battle. But we can take Christ into our hearts and realize that we are not alone and that we Christ, along with the community we call the church, be successful.

That is the question we faced today. Shall we be together or alone?

“A New Way to See”

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 August 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28. I added the picture of the Cades Cove Methodist Church on 25 September 2011.

During the summer of 1969, my family and I were on our way back from North Carolina to our home in Memphis. We had planned our return so that we could go through the Smoky Mountain National Park and camp there. But as we passed through the Newfound Gap, we discovered that it was quite literally “wall-to-wall” people. We, or rather I, had hoped that we would camp that night in the Cades Cove section of the park but we discovered that it was one of the more popular sections and that unless you had made reservations and gotten there early, you wouldn’t get it. Though it is some thirty years later, it is still pretty much the same today.

I was disappointed because I had read about Cades Cove and really wanted to see this section of the mountain South’s past. I don’t remember just how I felt that summer some thirty years ago but I knew that I wanted to come back there some day.

In March 1988, I drove from near Toledo, Ohio, where I was teaching and living at the time to Jacksonville, Florida, to participate in the American Bowling Congress tournament. On the way back, I decided that I would go through Newfound Gap and make that visit to Cades Cove that I had wanted to do many years before. As I came to the gap, I discovered that there was no one there. What I remembered as being filled with people was amazingly empty. But then again, it was an early spring morning and not yet the peak of the tourist season. So it was that I was able to visit Cades Cove and see the old Methodist Church and get a sense of what the world was like in rural Tennessee and North Carolina some two hundred years ago. The Methodist Church was interesting, if for no other reason that it had one door through which the men entered and another door for the women and children to enter through.

And this trip proved to be more prophetic than I might have thought because the path that I took to get to Florida took me within 15 miles of Whitesburg and Neon, Kentucky, where I was living last year before coming here to New York. I didn’t realize that I had gone that way until I had time to look at the path because the road had been dramatically altered.

So the view that I had, both of Pound Gap in Virginia and Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in Tennessee, was an entirely different one from the one I remembered. How we view things depend on the time and the place where we are.

In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he was “introduced” to God. I am sure that Moses had seen burning bushes before, perhaps as a result of a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. But the burning bush that Moses saw that afternoon was a far cry from what he was prepared to see since it was not consumed by the flame.

God often presents himself in a way that challenges our view of the world. We live in a world that we can taste, touch, feel, see, or smell. But the problem with living in a world based solely on physical evidence is that we find ourselves relying only on the physical world to supply all of our needs. And when that happens, God becomes a God that we only read about or hear someone speaking about. When this happens, we push God to the edges of our lives, only to be called upon in our moments of weakness.

We must see God not as One who only comes to us at the edges of our lives but as One who is a central part of our live. God is more that simply a god of convenience. “I am who I am”, the way that God was to be called by the Israelites, is a name which means faithfulness and dependability. God indicated that He would always be there, not just as times of stress and turmoil. But this name also meant the Israelites give Him their full trust as well. To know God, we must see him in a different view.

When Jesus told his disciples of his impending death, Peter’s response that it would never happen showed that he was still thinking in terms of the world being the center of life, not in terms of a life with God at the center. But what good is a life in which God is not the center?

Jesus spoke to his disciples about this when he said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” A world in which we see God as the center is, admittedly, a difficult one for us to see. It requires that we give up our focus on secular things; it requires that change the path that we walk.

And that, I think, is part of what Paul was telling the Romans. Everything Paul said in the Epistle reading for today runs counter to what we ordinarily do.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Some people are not willing or ready to give up the secular world because it is too much of a challenge. But we do not have to give up the world; in fact, we cannot give up the world. But we can change the path that we walk. All we have to do is change the focus of life, to take God from the pages of the book and make Him a part, the center of our life.

At the climax of Job, Job exclaims “My ears have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job saw his life no longer through the eyes of the world around him but through the eyes of faith and spiritual understanding.

Will we continue to see the world based on that which is around us or will we see it from a view of God as our center? Do we want a live of anxiety or a life of peace and trust? Some day we might be walking along when we see the burning bush? Will we know what we see?

Who Will Sit At Your Table?

This is the message that I am presenting at South Highlands United Methodist Church, 19 Snake Hill Road, Garrison, NY 10524 (Location of church); the service starts at 9:30 am.  The Scriptures for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 45: 1 – 15, Romans 11: 1 – 2 and 29 – 32, and Matthew 15: 10 – 20 and 21 – 28.


During this summer, when I have preached at nine different churches over the past eight weeks and where I will preach at two more churches in the coming two weeks, I was reminded of something I wrote two years ago (“My Father’s House”).

At certain times during the year, I will be in certain places. And, one of those times, unless I am called to be somewhere else to do our Father’s business, will always be Easter Sunday and that place that I should be is my home church.

It was the Gospel reading for today and the cry of the Canaanite woman “that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” that reminded me of Easter in 1969. Then I was a precocious 18-year old college sophomore. In many ways, it had not been a good year. I was not doing well in school and the specter of the draft was looming over me.

Like so many individuals of that time, I was searching for a meaning to what was transpiring in my life. And because of the political currents of that particular time in our country’s history, I was also trying to figure out how we could live in a world of war and hatred, of poverty and ignorance when the Gospel message was a message of hope and freedom.

As I was preparing for spring break and my trip home, I could not help but think that I would be missing something important. While Memphis, TN was and is my home, my home church that year was in Kirksville and I did not want to miss the Easter services or communion at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. I knew that there was the possibility of communion at Bartlett United Methodist Church, the church where my parents were members and which I attended while in high school. But it was not my home church and there was a feeling in me at the time that I needed to somehow take communion before I left for the break.

To that end, I approached Marvin Fortel, then the minister at First Church, about taking communion before leaving. He was a little taken back by the request, because most of the students who attended the services were members of churches in their hometown and only attended out of obligation to their parents. But he agreed to my request and we met in the chapel of the church before I left.

It was not a normal communion but rather a chance to talk about the process of communion and what it meant. And while I know I had been through the ritual of communion before, this was the first time that I had ever really looked at the words that were said during communion. The words that we spoke that day in 1969 then were not the words that begin on page 6 of our current hymnal but rather the words that begin on page 26 (we were using the old hymnal, not the present one).

And I, the worldly-wise college sophomore, remember proclaiming and wondering to the pastor, how could it be that I was not so worthy as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table, the words of the Canaanite women. Didn’t Christ’s death on the cross give me the right to sit at God’s table with everyone else?

That is when I began to learn and understand about God’s grace. It was God’s grace that allows me to sit at His table and nothing that I do on my own would ever give me that seat. It was then I began to learn that I could not earn my way into heaven; that my standing up for the rights of others, while noble and just, did little to open the gates of heaven for me. But, because I have accepted Christ as my Savior, then it was expected that I would stand up and speak out and bring the Gospel message to its fruition.

When I left the chapel that day, I left with a better understanding of what communion meant and what it meant to be both a Methodist and a Christian. Communion took on a different meaning for me that day.

What I learned that day in the chapel and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I came away from the church understanding that, having come to Christ and taken on the label of a Methodist, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.

And that is probably the hardest thing we as Christians must ever do, help others to find the opportunity, the hope, the peace that comes in knowing Christ. We live in a time where the word “Christian” is viewed with contempt and derision. The meaning of the word has been transposed from one who follows Christ and brings people in to one who uses the name of Christ to exclude people and to deny people the very things that Christ brought to this world.

We live in a world where it seems that we must respond to every act of violence against us in kind. We live in a world where people quote the Bible and “say an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a measure of revenge. We live in a world where logic dictates that violence is to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It is a logic that has created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but which has created a world in which hope has been lost and there is no promise for the future.

It is our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to an end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.

We forget that Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Jesus does more than simply deny the spiritual validity of an eye for an eye; he removes the right to engage in violent self-defense when an “evildoer” violates your humanity. Because someone wrongs you, you do not have the right to wrong your assailant. You may have the power to get even, but God does not give you the right to do so. Nor do you have the right to imitate the evil that led to the assault upon you. Again, you may have the power, but Jesus reminds us of what Amos said in calling us away from the imitation of evil:

“Seek good and not evil, that you may live . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5: 14 – 15)

We are faced with a dilemma when it comes to fighting anger, violence, and hatred. One’s concept of “rights” easily conflicts with one’s concept or feeling of moral duty. If I am wronged, it is my “right” to do wrong against him who has wronged me. If I am wronged, it is my moral duty to behave not as instinctive reaction would dictate, but only as reason and good sense show — for two wrongs do not make a right, and fire added to fire will surely burn the house down. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 25)

We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but let love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 37)

It would seem that it is our human nature to strike back, to seek revenge for the wrongs that others have done for us. Let us consider the scene in today’s reading for the Old Testament. Joseph has gathered his brothers together and it is altogether possible that the brothers fear for their lives. Remember, as this passage begins, they do not know that this is their brother to whom they are speaking and that he has arranged things so it would appear that they have stolen money from him. Joseph is the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt and they are at his mercy. Their thoughts that day must have been that they are about to die.

And what would you expect Joseph to do? After all, the rules of society then, as now, demanded revenge for injustice and no one, not even his brothers, would have said that he was wrong for not seeing revenge. They had sold him into slavery and told their father that he was dead. Revenge, no matter the form it took, would only have seemed right. The Count of Monte Cristo is but one example of such revenge.

But Joseph doesn’t seek revenge; he doesn’t seek justice. For whatever reasons, Joseph had an understanding of God’s purpose first told to him in the dreams of his youth and then in the dreams that he interpreted. His relationship with God would not allow him to seek what society said he could seek. Rather, he was to seek what God wanted and that was reconciliation and renewal.

If the hardest thing for us to do is help others come to know Christ, then the second hardest thing is to understand our purpose and place in God’s plan. Society tells us one thing and it tells us so loud and so convincingly that we can never hear what God is saying.

Paul wrote the Romans and told them that even though there were those who had rejected Christ and were persecuting the Christians, God’s mercy also applied to them. We still have a hard time with that statement for we try to measure God’s grace in our own terms. It is not up to us to decide what God will do.

There are many today who seek God through paths that don’t require Christ. It is not up to me to say to such a person that they are barred from heaven; if they truthfully and faithfully follow the tenets of what they believe, salvation shall be theirs. If they twist and corrupt the essentials of that religion, then salvation shall be lost. Nor can you create a religion out of the best parts of other religions and hope to achieve a good result.

It is not up to us to say to those who walk another path but believe in the same God that our rules apply to you when they don’t. But it is just as true that if you say you are a Christian but your life and thoughts do not reflect the life and thoughts of Christ, then you risk the same result.

We live in a world where many people have taken it upon themselves to decide who gets to sit at God’s table. And when we set the rules that only God has the power to set, we risk our expulsion from that table. We see so many people today who have rejected the words of Christ because of the hypocrisy of the people who twist the words. The theologian Henri Nouwen wrote

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)

Joseph, after so many years, invited his brothers to sit at his table, even though we might think that they did not deserve such privileges. Jesus opened the doors of heaven to everyone who would but express their faith. And Paul reminds us that all are worthy of God’s grace, even when they have seemingly turned away or sought to work against Him.

As we go out into the world, we are asked to be Christ’s disciples, to live the life as Christ led His. We go out into the world as Methodists, to live a life as John Wesley would. It has been said that John Wesley was not a systematic theologian but, rather, a theologian of the road. He did not see theology as something to be observed from a distance but rather as a part of one’s life. Systematic theologians see the world as an exercise of thought, cold, and authoritarian, removed from life. Theologians of the road share fully in the hustle and bustle of the streets, giving themselves to the dust, the sweat, and tediousness of travel, and who work out their answers as they walk along in company with others, sharing the burdens.

The core precept here is not about passivity or flight. It is about fighting back with different weapons. It is about resisting evil without showing enmity. It is about responding as Jesus taught us to respond, not how we think we should respond. (Adapted from “Higher Ground: The Nonviolence Imperative” by James M. Lawson, Jr. in Getting on Message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)

One way of being a Methodist today is to survey human needs and bring to bear on them any resources of the Christian faith that can help, even if this requires new syntheses, new emphases, and the rediscovery of neglected truth. When John Wesley began his work, it was to rescue the poor and forgotten. It brought hope and a promise to a world that was convinced that there was no hope and no promise. (Adapted from Economic Policies and Judicial Oppression as Formative Influences on the Theology of John Wesley, Wesley D. Tracy – http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/26-30/27.2.htm)

For many people today, it is the same. And so it is that we who proclaim to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we who hold the banner of Methodism in our hearts and in our minds should begin again those things which John Wesley did. Let us proclaim the Gospel message of healing the sick, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, freeing the oppressed in spirit and mind, and feeding the hungry. Let us begin by asking who will sit at our table.

Who Shall Lead Us?

This was to be my “blog” for August 21st; it is based on the common lectionary for that Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

Thomas Paine wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He was, of course, referring to the events that would eventually lead to the American Revolution. But he could have easily been describing the problems of today’s churches.

These are times when we read and hear of numerous churches that are growing in leaps and bounds, prompting the term “mega-church.” According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there are approximately 800 Protestant churches in the United States with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2000 or more.[1] In addition to their size, these churches have charismatic pastors who offer a softer and gentler version of the Gospel. It is a Gospel that promises wealth and good health to those who believe but it appears that the only ones getting wealthy are the pastors who present the message.

The Gospel was, at least to me, never about getting rich or having good health. The riches that we receive are in heaven and not here on earth. The Gospel message, again at least to me, was about helping the sick, the needy, the homeless, and the oppressed. It was and is a message that centers on Christ’s sacrifice so that we may be free from sin and spiritual death. But these are points missing in the mega church; look at the stage (I will not call it an altar) and see if you can find the cross or any other reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and suffering for our sake.

Attend a worship service at one of these churches or at any more modern worship service and you are likely to feel that you are in a rock concert rather than a church service. The music of today’s modern worship service takes on the tone of a mantra rather than challenging the worshipper to open their hearts. We hear an almost Calvinistic message that poverty and homelessness are the products of the sinful nature of the person rather than inequities and inequalities in life. Listen to these “good-time” pastors and you have to wonder if there are any homeless, sick, needy or any oppressed people in the world. It is almost as if the world of these pastors and their congregations did not have any sick, needy, homeless, or imprisoned. Theirs is the reply of the people in Matthew 25: 31 – 39.

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

These churches, offering their “light” Gospel turn away those who seek solace and peace in a world of turmoil and darkness.

I listened to someone the other day who said they were religious but who had quit going to church. It seems that when this individual was faced with a major crisis in their lives, they had wanted to go to their church and pray. But the church was closed when they got there and the priest was not willing to open up the church so that they could go in. In a time of need, the church was not there for this person and because the church was not there, this person no longer goes to church. How many similar stories have we heard or do we know where the church is not there when a person seeks solace and comfort but cannot find it. Our churches are quickly becoming a church that turn people away rather than let them in. If they do not like a person’s lifestyle or economic status, they are likely to turn that person away.

These self-proclaimed religious leaders of our country proclaim that they have Biblical support for their message and decisions. But they forget that leaders in the Bible challenged the people, and did not simply offer simple or comfortable answers.

We cannot, in this day and age, have leaders who simply choose approaches that mirror the problems of today. We cannot respond to violence with violence; we cannot make the world free by oppressing others. In a world where people are sick, needy, or homeless, we cannot say that they are not welcome or that they are in such a state because of their own sinfulness. Callousness, shallowness, and indifference cannot cure the problems of the world; yet, that is the manner of the message many people hear in church today.

We claim to be Christian but we are not willing to walk the path that Christ walked. We cannot expect any government to offer solutions that require that we give of ourselves. Often times, the demands of the political state contradict the demands placed on us by the kingdom of heaven. We fail to realize that if Jesus had accepted Satan’s offer to command the kingdoms of the world, He would have had to renounce His Lordship.

We want the kingdoms of the world; we want the kingdom of heaven as well, but we want it know and here on earth. We want our leaders, political or spiritual, to lead us to the Promised Land. This was the promise of Satan, not Christ. When Peter proclaimed to Jesus and the other disciples that Jesus was the true Messiah, Jesus did not give him the keys to the kingdom on earth but rather the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Our own declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is something that we believe in our heart and our mind but it is not always provable in a world that demands physical proof. And, sometimes like Peter on Good Friday, we are not always prepared to meet the demands of society that demand such proof.[2]

We live in a world that responds to violence with violence, oppression with further repression and ignores the sick, the needy, and the homeless. In this world is a river that separates us from the kingdom of peace, justice, and perfect love.

We need to be people who seek to find ways to cross the river; we need to be people who dare to live in accordance with the ways of the other side, not this side of the river. And as we cross the river, we need to remain in touch with those who do not go with us, even if they choose not to go with us.[3]

Paul spoke to the Romans about the gifts we have all been given. One of those gifts is to help others come to the river’s edge and find the way to the other side, to the Promised Land.

We need to be reminded that “Moses” means “I drew him out of the water.” Moses’ life began on the river’s edge but it was from that river’s edge that he was able to lead his people to the Promised Land. Our Moses is Jesus and He is willing to lead us to the Promised Land if we are willing to follow.

The mission of the church is not to be a source of discord or hatred but to bring the Gospel message into the world. In the midst of all the trouble, in the midst of all the violence and hatred in this world, we must be willing to bring the message of freedom and love that is the Gospel message. It is not an easy path to walk and there are times when we need someone to lead us. Such a leader will not be found in our political system but rather in our heart.

It should not be a question of who shall lead us that we answer today but rather “shall we let Jesus lead us?” The answer to that question is in your hearts; it is an answer that you need to express this day.

Down By the Riverside

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain’t gonna study war no more.


I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.

Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand;
Down By the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand
Down by the riverside
Gonna study war no more.


Gonna put on my long white robe;
Down By the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna put on my long white robe; Down by the riverside
Gonna study war no more.


Gonna put on my starry crown; Down By the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna put on my starry crown;
Down by the riverside
Gonna study war no more.


Gonna put on my golden shoes;
Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace;
Gonna shake hands around the world;

I don’t mind if you use this but please let me know (TonyMitchellPhD@verizon.net). Also let me know what part you are using so that proper citations can be used.

[2] Adapted from “West Coast Witness” by Peter S. Hawkins (Christian Century, 9 August 2005)

[3] Adapted from “Battle Lines” by Eberhard Arnold (http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/ea/BattleLines.htm)