“Grace”


This will be on the back page for the Fishkill UMC bulletin for September 24, 2017 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A).  Services begin at 10 and you are welcome to attend.


For those who don’t know, I am a Level 1 Trekkie.  I like Star Trek but don’t go to the conventions or anything like that.  My interest in Star Trek comes from the common point of reference of Iowa that I share with Captain Kirk.

If I am not mistaken, Star Trek was the first television series in which there was true equality.  It remains to be seen if this world will ever achieve that point; but if we don’t try, we will never know.

Equality has proven to be a rather elusive concept in this country.  The idea of equality, first written not quite 250 years ago, has evolved and expanded over the years but we still struggle with it.  And our struggle to understand the political nature of equality does not help when we try to understand God’s Grace.

God’s Grace is given to all, equally and freely, and yet we think that somehow some should receive more than others and some should not receive any at all.  But God gave sustenance in equal portions for all the Israelites to live during the Exodus and punished those who tried to take more than their share.

And while each worker should receive compensation for their labors, the parable in today’s Gospel is really not about wages.  It is and will always be about God’s grace and that all receive it equally.

I learned a long time ago that it was God’s grace alone that allowed me to sit at His Table; who I was and what I  had done before meant nothing.  And while this doesn’t seem fair, it reminds us that God’s equality transcends all.  And as one of God’s children, my presence at His Table is cause, as Paul noted, to celebrate.

And having been given this grace, we celebrate by helping others to receive it as well. ~ Tony Mitchell

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Lexington, North Carolina


As noted, this was a message I presented back in 2005.  I am reposting it because I described my own personal encounter with segregation when I was about 12 years old.


This is the message that I will present this morning at Vails Gate UMC (Vails Gate, NY). Please let me know what you think; also, if you want to use what I have written here, please let me know.  (This post was edited on 12 March 2008 to remove some programming errors)

Thanks!

In peace and with Christ – Tony Mitchell


When I began reading the Scriptures for today, my first thoughts were of my mother’s home town of Lexington, North Carolina, and the times we spent visiting there while growing up. Hence, that is the title for this sermon. But as I struggled with and worked on this sermon, my thoughts changed from the days past when I was growing up to the days present.

For me, growing up in the south, hurricanes are not just items on the evening news or something read about in the newspaper. So the impact of Katrina has hit me just a little harder than perhaps it did you. And the knowledge of what is happening in New Orleans has added to what I was thinking a few weeks ago.

The three scriptures that we have for today have two common points, fear and trust. While decided several years ago, it is quite evident that they are very appropriate and evident for today.

Very few people seem to be asking what sort of a spiritual impact this disaster will have, and whether we are going to let it affect our consciences and our collective soul. Shouldn’t we all be praying for a spiritual renewal, and for a new era of justice and love? To me, that is the sort of question we should be asking.

Having said this, I’m sure that the people who have been personally devastated by Katrina are dealing with these deeper issues, and I pray that they find the nearness of God like never before.

Our world today is filled with unknowns and fears. Not only have we had to deal with Hurricane Katrina, we read of forest fires in Portugal and the western United States, mudslides in the Alps, the continued violence, destruction, and despair in Iraq, and the on-going famine in Darfur.

Others fears, both real and imagined, gnaw at the back of many minds. We cannot begin a day without hearing what the color of the day is; we have been encouraged to view any stranger we encounter as a threat, either as a terrorist or as one who will steal our identify from us. It is no wonder then that the enthusiasm of the young is being stifled and gradually replaced with caution, reserve, and apathy. (Adapted from “Searching for the Mountaintop – Finding a purpose in a Time of Fear” by Johann Christoph Arnold)

Our politics have almost totally become politics of fear. Politicians no longer campaign on the good things they will do but rather on what terrible things their opponents will do.

I am the son and grandson of career military officers. It is quite likely that my grandfather passed through this region as his infantry regiment was transferred from Fort Meade, Maryland, to Plattsburgh, NY, in 1921. Because my father made his career as an Air Force officer, we moved around quite a bit.

Lexington, North Carolina, is my mother’s home and a place that we visited from time to time. It was the place where I was baptized, and as such, it is a place that I consider one of my hometowns.

One summer during the early 1960’s we were visiting my grandparents. While there my two brothers and I went to the movie theater in town. While trying to find a place to sit, we inadvertently wandered into what one would politely call the “colored” section. Even though the theater was a public theater, this was the south and it was still a time of segregation.

What I remember of that moment was that while it was easy to pass from the “whites only” section, it was very difficult to pass back. The gate that separated the two sections only swung one way. It was easy enough to figure out that you needed to pull the gate back rather than push it forward. But when you are in a darkened theater with two younger brothers, it is a frightening and uncomfortable situation. It is such a situation in which fear can quickly grow.

Unfortunately, the legacy of segregation and the fear that can come from that odious practice is still with us. The news coming out of New Orleans is just a hint of the decades of oppression and fear that was imposed on the minorities in this country.

It was also fear that drove Matthew to write down the words of the Gospel that we read this morning. In all of Jesus’ parables, he challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. This passage goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005)

If you stop and think about it, these cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem. If that fails, then they were to be expelled from the church.

Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree?

There are those who feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.

These words still have a meaning for this day and time, for this is a passage of patience and gentleness. When you feel that you have been wronged by someone, you should make the first approach. When you point out that fault that has produced the rift between the two of you, it is to be done in love and friendship. One should use such a visit as this for the purpose of regaining a lost brother or sister, not for humiliation or condemnation.

Even if this private visit fails, the individual should not be branded as anything publicly. Two or three others, chosen for their Christian grace, are to be told so that their urgings can be added. It is only if they fail that the whole congregation should be told but not so that they can thrust this individual from their company and compassion. Only the individual’s own actions can drive them from the church.

These passages offer us a glimpse into the problems of the early church. Even then, there were careless and wayward members; sometimes there were even open scandals. The epistles confirm this picture of the early church. When we re-read verse 18, we see that it has been fulfilled. The church sometimes determines what interpretations should be forbidden (bound) and which should be sanctioned (loosed). The church, both the early one and today’s varieties and versions, have not been as gentle in discipline as the Gospel reading proposed. The church many times has acted with cruel vigor. The curse and penalty discussed in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (“hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature (that his body; or that the flesh) may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5: 5) is not gentle and it has been carried far beyond Paul’s time.

Matthew has combined in this writing a call for Christian patience and a great yearning for unity in the church. (Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)  There was truly a fear that there would be those whose work would destroy the building of the church and perhaps there was a need for such scripture. But fear should never drive what we do or we should we use fear to disenfranchise people.

We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. We will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.

We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. What we should take from this passage is that we are encouraged to remove the divisions between people, not building up walls that divide. We are encouraged to unite people with Christian love and grace, not separate people through fear, hatred and condemnation. And do we not sing

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me…
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., came to Memphis to help the garbage workers in the strike against the City of Memphis. On April 3rd, he spoke not knowing what would transpire the next day. On that night he said,

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

On the next day, Dr. King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King foresaw his death. He knew without a doubt that it was coming, and he had every right to be afraid. But he wasn’t. So why should we?

There can be no doubt that there was fear in the minds of the Israelites that first Passover night. What if the Angel of Death should not see the blood smeared on the door to their house? What if the Pharaoh would not heed this last warning from God and let them go? What were they going to find as they went out into the desert? There truly must have been fear in their minds. But they trusted God.

And just as they trusted God to lead them through the desert and to the Promised Land, so too must we trust in God. So too must we work to show others that God has not forgotten anyone. In the reading from Romans for today, Paul quiets our fears. We know that our future is secure through Christ’s death and sacrifice on the cross. The blood of the lamb smeared on the doors of the Israelite homes in Egypt is now the Blood of Christ soaked into the Cross on Calvary. With this, how can we be afraid of what might come before us.

We must, as Paul encouraged us from centuries past, to replace fear in this country with true Christian love. If we allow fear to control our lives, it will conquer our lives. And if fear conquers, it will breed anger; and anger will bring hate. We must bring, through our words, our deeds, our thoughts and prayers the light of the world that was brought in our lives when we first accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior.

In a time when disaster seems to bring out the worst and causes mankind to distrust mankind, we must work to bring out the best in people. In a world where people see disaster and question the very existence of a loving and kind God, we must use our skills and talents to show that God is a positive presence in every ones lives.

For me, Lexington is just one of many places that I call home. It is where I came to know Christ as a baptized infant. Though it was a place where I came to know one manner of fear that people used to control others, it was a place in which my journey with Christ also began. We each have such a place in our lives; we must work to make sure that others do so as well.

“What Do You Want? What Will You Get?”


Meditation for 28 September 2014, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, Matthew 21: 23 – 32

Somewhere in my academic files is a paper entitled “Whadja Get?” It is, I believe, the first draft of a paper that was to be submitted for publication. I base this on the fact that the author’s name is not on it nor is there any reference to what journal the author was submitting. I suppose that, on that basis, I could publish it and claim it as my own and take the heat if it is in fact published elsewhere. But that is 1) the subject of another piece and 2) not the reason I mention it at this time.

The purpose of this particular paper was to discuss, in the early/mid 1980s, the idea of grades in a classroom. We were then and are now dominated by a “bottom-line” mentality, especially in the area of education. The grade you receive in any course is supposed to represent some measure of what you know about that subject but often times is more reflective of your standing in the class.

When I was teaching college, I found myself spending the first day or two outlining how one achieved success in my classroom. I was and still and am convinced that much of that fell on deaf ears, because most of the students were only interested in what was the fastest and easiest way to get an “A” in the course. And many of those students did not like my rule for extra credit: Extra credit was possible, provided all the other work had been completed.

Now, I will be honest. I grew up in a competitive environment and, while not explicitly stated, being “number 1” was always the goal. But I also learned that the deck was often stacked against those, such as I, who were newcomers to the system. And many times, it wasn’t what you did but who you were and where you came from that counted more.

Fortunately for me, there were individuals in my life who made sure that our competition was fun and we did things right. I will always remember one particular contest that had several parts, most of which we could do by ourselves. There was one requirement, though; you had to do have a partner so there were no questions. I had a friend who wanted to win this particular competition and he asked me to be his partner. The outcome was that my friend won the particular competition and I finished in the top five. Now, I suppose that if I wanted to, I could have finished higher with a little more effort but to finish 5th without trying and, in the process, helping someone else was a pretty good outcome.

I wonder sometimes if we are so focused on the outcome that we fail to consider what we are doing. Throughout the Exodus, the Israelites constantly questioned the purpose of their trip, never considering what they were getting as a result. In the Old Testament passage for today, it was about the quantity of fresh water that was available. For some of the Israelites, being in slavery in Egypt was more preferable to searching for water in the desert.

In the Gospel reading for today, the people are more concerned with the trappings of power than they are with the validity of the message those with the trappings give. And yet, in today’s society, an easy life, bound by slavery to ritual and trappings, is a preferred life to one that is free but requires work.

I think about what Paul wrote to the Philippians about how they should be living their lives. I think, though I am not a scholar on the topic, that one of Paul’s common themes was the relationship of Christ in our lives. He writes to the Philippians about Christ taking on the status of a slave and, through that process, achieving a greater status.

And notice what else Paul wrote; by living a life with Christ, we gain an energy that will enable and sustain in all that what we do.

I can think of many verses in the Bible in both the Old and New Testament that speak of victory. But it is not a victory that comes from being alone at the finish line but the victory that comes when others celebrate in the same victory.

I have no doubt what people want and there are many times that I want many of the same things. But what will you get if all you seek are those things that have no meaning tomorrow?

What are your priorities? In seeking that which you treasure, will you lose what is more valuable?

“Who? Me!”


Here is the message that I gave for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 1992 at Grace United Methodist Church (St. Cloud, MN) and served as Laity Sunday. I based the message on Genesis 6: 11 – 14 and Mark 1: 16 – 20 (as I have previously noted, this was before I began using the lectionary as the basis for my message). This was also the third sermon/message that I ever presented.

And the Lord said to Noah “I want you to build me an ark”. What was Noah’s response? Did Noah check his calendar to see if he was available that week? Did he ask God to postpone the flood because he, Noah, wouldn’t be available? Maybe he thought that some of his friends were playing a joke on him? Noah lived in an area that got about one inch of rain a year so what was he supposed to think when God told him that it was going to rain for forty days and nights? We don’t know what Noah’s initial response was but we do know that he did what God asked him to do.

It hasn’t always been easy to get people to listen to God.  Consider Moses.  Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land; but what did he do?  He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord?  Can’t you find someone else?” (Exodus 4:10 – 13) God did not let Moses off the hook but He did give him some help in the form of his brother Aaron.

It isn’t that we don’t hear God speaking to us, but that we often don’t know that He is.  In I Samuel 3:3 – 12 we read

the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the Ark of God was.  Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’ He said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’  So he went and lay down.  And the Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’  And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  And the Lord called Samuel again the third time.  And he arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.’  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’  And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for thy servant hears.’”

Samuel heard a voice but did not know that it was God speaking.  Fortunately, Eli understood and provided Samuel with the necessary guidance.  There have been others who have heard God speaking but, without guidance, could not respond.  Many others have probably never heard the voice of God.  Because of this, God sent His Son.

How did the twelve disciples respond when Jesus said, as we heard in the New Testament reading, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. (Mark 1: 16 – 20) Why should these men leave their livlihoods and follow Jesus?  Especially, as it was stated in the New Testament reading, since they did it immediately.  It wasn’t really practical to get up and leave their jobs and families behind.  There wasn’t anywhere else to go.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to stay as fisherman and eke out what living they could.  Times were tough and this man from Nazareth was asking them to leave their jobs and work for him, not knowing if they would every be paid for their efforts.  But they did, simply because they believed in what Jesus was doing.

Does God speak to us today?  In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins describes his journey from upstate New York to New Orleans and his attempt to discover who he is.  During that journey, he was drawn to an old fashion church revival meeting where he discovered the Holy Spirit.  There it became clear why he was on his journey.  Later, in the second volume of his journey, The Walk West, Peter and his wife Barbara describe the events that lead up to their marriage.  While they were in love with each other, they still had some doubts. After all, Peter was not just asking Barbara to marry him; he was asking her to walk from New Orleans to Oregon through Texas.  As Sandra will tell you, west Texas is no place to take your brand new wife.  One evening, while at an evening church service, the preacher, referring to Ruth in the Old Testament, asked “Will you go with this man?”  To Peter and Barbara, this was the sign that all would be well.

Following God requires faith and commitment.  When we have faith and a commitment to God, we can do anything.  Without either, our life is lost.  Ask Noah, Samuel, or any of the disciples what faith meant to them.  Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America.  Without their faith in God, their efforts would have been meaningless.  Could they have survived the weeks on the trail as they traveled from one town to another preaching the Gospel if it were not for faith?   Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of the Methodist Church in America, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that they, these early preachers, would have to endure on their circuit.  It was not for the weak of body or spirit.  But for these early circuit riders, the Methodist Church might not have survived.

But it should also be noted that these churches would not have survived without the support of the laity either.  Because there weren’t enough preachers for all of the churches, the laity had to do the work of the church during the weeks when the preacher was not there.  How did those early congregations survive if it were not for faith and a commitment to God? Were it not for faith in God and a commitment to His work by the members of Grace Church, would this present building have been built?  That it was is a testament to that faith and commitment to do God’s work in St. Cloud.

Grace Church has a rich and distinguished history.  That is what today is about.  On this day we celebrate the role of the laity in the United Methodist Church, both in the past and for the future.  In picking the twelve disciples, none of whom were traditionally trained in the church, Jesus made the statement that it was the laity upon whom His church would be built.  It was the laity upon whom the foundation of the Methodist Church was built and upon whom the success of future churches lies.  But a history alone does not insure a future.

Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, stated that “We must disenthrall ourselves with the past and then we will save our country.” (What I Saw At the Revolution, Peggy Noonan) Lincoln was not saying that the United States should forget its past but that, if the country was to overcome the trauma and division that the Civil War brought, and move forward, it could not continue as it had.

Today God calls Grace Church.  He isn’t asking us to do something dramatic, drastic or beyond our capabilities.  God as never asked anyone to do something that they could not do.  It is just that many people don’t believe they have the capability of doing what God asks of them.  Nor is He asking us to forget our past.  He is asking that we look to the future.  For any church’s future to have a meaning, its members must work for it today.

Are you involved in the work of the church or are you committed to the work of the church?  There is a difference.  I am sure you have heard the story about the difference between involvement and commitment.  It happens every time you eat a breakfast of ham and eggs.  While the hen was involved in the successful production of the breakfast, the hog was committed to its success.  (I want to thank Hugh Bunday for this; he in turn will thank Dorothy.)  Are you involved or are you committed?

When we joined the United Methodist Church and when others join the church, we, along with the other members of the church, vow to “uphold the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 48 (1989).) What does this phrase mean? 

Do we meet our obligations to the church and the work of the church through our prayers?  Do you spend some time each day in prayer?  Will you pray for the success of next week’s Spiritual Renewal Mission?  There has been a sheet at the back of the sanctuary for the last four weeks asking people to sign up for one hour of prayer each day for the success of the Mission and for Grace Church.  Will you respond to the challenge by signing the sheet?

One month ago, John stood in this pulpit and told us how he prayed to  God for a sign that his ministry at Grace Church would be a success .  His prayers were answered.  He also asked for ten men to help rebuild the United Methodist Men’s organization here at Grace church.  Before he left church that Sunday he had six pledges.   This Saturday at 8:00, because of those six men and four others, we will be meeting to make that reorganization possible.

Next Sunday, Ken Krueger begins the Spiritual Renewal Mission.  Will you be here?  Will you come to each of the four evening services?  Will you bring a friend?  If everyone here today brought one friend, there would be more people in this sanctuary then have been in it for some 30 years.  IT CAN BE DONE!  But it requires a commitment.  Similar to the prayer clock, there is a sign up sheet for pew captains.  It is not necessary to be a captain for all five services; one is enough.  Will you take the challenge  put before you and sign up as a pew captain for one of those services?

What else can you do for the church?  Would you volunteer to serve as the lay reader one Sunday a month?  Would you sing in the choir?   Several members of this church, both old and young, new and long-time, have spoken to you about what Grace Church means to them.  I am sure that if you ask anyone of them, they would tell you that it can be very frightening to stand up here and say what is in your heart.  I am sure that everyone of them will also tell you that they did not come up here without first having spent some time praying and asking God for guidance and advice.  When the Holy Spirit is at your side, such things can be done.

Finally, our gifts.  We are currently in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign.  Two weeks from today is Stewardship Sunday.  On that day, we will ask you to make a financial commitment to Grace Church.  Between now and then, you will be receiving a note from the Stewardship Committee asking that you give serious thought to your financial commitment to Grace Church.  I realize that filling out pledge cards is a new thing for many in this church and that many will not return the pledge cards.  Grace Church struggled for many years but this year, because of the faith and commitment of the members of this church, is not one of them.  In returning the pledge card, you are making a commitment to insure that  the plans for Grace Church in the coming year are a success.

Commitment requires more than involvement.  Jesus could not have completed his task, his mission on earth, without a commitment to the cross.  His commitment to us was a total one.  Our commitment can never match his but we are never asked to do so.  We are asked to make a commitment so that others can understand the commitment Jesus made on the cross.

Today, God is calling Grace Church.  He is asking “Who will help me?; who will follow me?; who will do My work?”  Will your answer be “me?” or will it be “ME!”

“What Do We Do Next?”


This is the sermon that I presented at Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 7 September 1997. the Scriptures for this Sunday were Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2: 1-10 (11-13), 14-17; and Mark 7: 24-37

The Gospel reading for today reminded me of the first time I ever considered what it meant to be a Christian.

When I was a college sophomore, during the spring of 1969, I went to the pastor of the church that I attended. Spring break was coming up, and while I was coming home to Memphis, I felt the need to take communion at the church that I attended in college since that was where I was a member.

(This is not the first time that this account has been posted to my blog. I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in “That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in “Our Father’s House”. But this is probably the first time that I spoke of this encounter in a message)

Now, Reverend Fortel was a little surprised by this request but he agreed to it anyway. So on the day before the break, we met at the church and went to the chapel for communion.

Now, instead of going through the ritual of the Sacrament, we discussed what communion was and I recall reading the prayer found on page 30 of our current hymnal

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 30)

I don’t recall my exact emotion but I do remember questioning the statement “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”

I felt that, as a Christian, our worth was such that we could sit at God’s table as his equal. But Reverend Fortel pointed out that because of sin we had lost our place at God’s table, but because of His grace, God has restored our position.

The woman in the Gospel reading today was neither Jewish nor from Israel, yet she still sought Jesus. And when Jesus reminded her of her status, she point out that “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” to which Jesus acknowledged her faith.

It was because of her faith and not her status that she was saved. God’s grace is given to us all, no matter what our status.

Each of the Proverbs that are part of the Old Testament reading for today speak of the relationship between the parts of society and how each part should treat each other.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.

Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;

For the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Yet, today, it seems as if status is everything. Even in Wesley’s time, being poor was considered the result of a sinful life. In the Epistle reading for today, James warns the reader against showing partiality because of a person’s status. On more than one occasion, Wesley pointed out that being poor was not something to be pitied.

Doing good works should never be and cannot be considered an accounting technique. We cannot say that we did so many good works and expect those works to take our sins. Much will be said about the good works done by Lady Diana and Mother Theresa. Many will see the works of Mother Theresa in terms of her job as a nun but nothing will be said about the faith of Lady Diana. I do not presume and will not make any judgements about these individuals. They showed the world through their lives and actions what can be done and that is all we can say.

It is what we do because we have come to Christ that matters. Good works are one of the responsibilities that we accepted when we came to Christ was to help those less fortunate than us so that they could find Christ in their lives. To Wesley, this was very important because the living conditions in England at his time made it very difficult for the poor to survive, let alone succeed. And when the day-to-day conditions make it impossible to live, a simple greeting to have faith is going to do little to reduce that individual’s burden.

It was inconceivable to Wesley how anyone could ignore the poor and their struggles. He remembered the words of Jame, “if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs,” what is the good of that?

Having been saved by our faith, having been lifted up by God’s grace, how can we not help others? James told his readers that if you break one law, then you break all the laws. If you sin, it doesn’t matter how great or small the sin because you will have fallen from God’s grace.

It is our duty as a Christian and as a Methodist to work towards the life of Christian perfection. It is not an easy life but then no one said that it would ever be. It is a much easier live to not worry about others and simply seek God’s forgiveness when we sin. But there may come a day when we fail to seek forgiveness. What will we do then?

Think of the woman in the Gospel reading today whose faith in Christ brought her to Him. Though in the eyes of society, she may not have been worthy, by her faith and her actions, she was saved.

The last portion of the prayer that caused me to think concludes “. . .that we walk in the newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Each day we renew the bond we have with Jesus, each day we seek to fulfill the redemption of our worth by our faith and our actions so that other may know of a life in Christ.

A blog for the weekend


This is the blog for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2010. The Scriptures for today are Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; Luke 15: 1 – 10.

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I really never came up with a name for this weekend’s blog. I looked at the Scriptures and saw the threads of my thoughts but a title didn’t jump out, so this is a just “a blog for the weekend”. I suppose that I am going to get into trouble for writing this but I need to express some thoughts, thoughts that some people will find blasphemous or heretical. But I also hope that, as with many of the other blogs that I post, they will cause you to think.

Let’s start with how we began, how we became human. I once wrote that I believe that we became human the moment we discovered/created/realized who we were, when we became conscious of our surroundings and our place in said surroundings.

And when we became conscious of our own being, we had to begin asking “why?” We saw things and we had to wonder why they occurred. Some things that we saw (when I use “saw”, understand that I am using that term to mean a use of all five senses – sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing.) were easily explainable; others were not.

It seems to me that is why we created gods; it was an easy and logical means for explaining complicated observations and phenomena. There was conflict between people – it must be that there is a god of war. There are seasons – there must be gods that control the weather and the world around us. Plants grow and die – there must be gods for the crops and fertility. Mankind, in all places around the world, developed or created a god to explain everything observed.

Perhaps that is why we developed religions. We need some sort of organization to help us better understand who we are and where we are in relationship to this universe. But I have also noticed that many religions and many cultures had a supreme god, a central figure to whom all things were ultimately directed. And therein lays perhaps the greatest problem of all times.

Our position in the cosmos as Christians is predicated on a belief and a faith that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that He came to us to offer salvation and the chance for redemption. But we sometimes forget, and there are many who don’t even know, how we became Christian.

We forget that the lineage of Christianity goes back to Judaism. And that Judaism began when Abram understood that there is and was only one God. Because of this revelation, Abram became Abraham and had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, both of whom became the founders of great nations. It will be Isaac whose sons and grandsons will lead to the nation of Israel; it will be through Ishmael that the nation of Islam will form.

Whether we are talking about one branch of this extended family tree or another, it still remains that all those who profess to believe in God as a Jew, as a Muslim, or as a Christian (what we call the Abrahamic religions) all have as a basic core belief that there is one God and you shall hold no other Gods before Him. We recognized that all those other gods (the god of war, the god of fertility, the god of money, and so forth) really don’t exist; though the way we live today would perhaps suggest that many still see such gods as real and more powerful than God.

I really don’t think it matters whether you choose to say you worship Allah, Yahweh, or God; the person who answers to all three names is the same. But I do hope that however you worship, you are true to your beliefs. I know many people who have experimented with a variety of religions and belief systems, trying to either resolve their own internal thoughts or because they feel that the religion is somehow no longer true or valid in today’s society. I am certain that others have attempted to create a belief system of their own through a study of all other systems and picking the best of each for their own. I really don’t see how that can work; one would be trying to create something out of a conglomerate of various parts of different sizes and shapes and somewhere along the line, you would have to force things to fit. And such a system, if it could be created, would be incomplete. There is a reason for a belief system and you have to accept the good parts and the bad parts, even if you don’t want some of the parts. And again, there are quite a few people today who do try to take only the good parts or somehow force the parts to be what they want. Maybe this is why we have so much trouble inside denominations and religions and between denominations and religions.

All I can say is that you should make sure that you follow whatever path you choose to follow. The animosity that occurs between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity occurs because adherents of each branch claim that only their branch is the true one and all others are false. And if you wish to get to heaven, then you must denounce your belief in other options and accept their option as the only viable and feasible one.

Now, because I was raised in a Christian environment and I was given the opportunity to think about the path that I wish to walk, I choose to follow Christ. There were times when I thought about that decision and I did explore, as others have always done, other options. But it always came down to who I was and what could I do and I was only going to find those answers in a path where I walked with Christ. I know many individuals who perhaps had the same path laid out before them and they have chosen to follow another one. That is their choice and I wish them well. But I see my life in the words of Paul, who understood where he was going and what he was likely to encounter because of his life as Saul.

Saul saw his life as the enforcer of the truth and he did a very good job of prosecuting and persecuting the early Christian church (which wasn’t called the Christian Church but that’s for another time). Saul was the penultimate fundamentalist – there is only one path and I know what it is and you will follow that path to its conclusion or pay the price!

I can’t speak to why he converted. Maybe something inside him was driving him to justify his own faith; maybe watching how Stephen dealt with his stoning began to make him ask questions about his own belief. But on the road to Damascus, Saul’s life changed and he became Paul. As Paul, he pushed for the new faith but not with the ferocity that he had pushed Judaism as Saul. He did make it clear what he thought the best path was; he did make it clear what he believed were the consequences if one chose to follow an alternative path. But he did not condemn those who failed to follow his direction or chose to follow another path like those in today’s world do.

In the end, the choice of the path that we are to follow is our choice and our choice alone. We have to live with its consequences and enjoy its rewards. It is not up to us to say to others that you have to follow the same path that we are on. And if others say to us that they will go where they feel they must go, so be it. In the end, they have to deal with that choice and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it. It is their choice and God gave them free will to choose.

All I know is that there are those in the world today who are lost, who seek answers. They may want others to provide the answers; they may want others to offer them the evidence so that they can make the choices. If I am to be a faithful follower of Christ, then I must offer that evidence to those who seek the answers, whether they accept what I offer or not.

It means that I lay out the evidence before them (such as using this blog); it means extending an invitation to come and visit my church, sometimes at home (services are at 9 and 10:30) and sometimes when I go somewhere as a lay speaker (see “Working for The Lord – Summer, 2010”).

We are at an interesting time in the life of civilization and this planet. We have the capability to destroy this world and those who live on it, both quickly and slowly. Our desire to use violence as the answer to violence says to me that we can quickly destroy this world if we do not change our course; our seeming indifference to what we have done and are doing to this planet tells me that we are slowly destroying this world and if we do not change course real soon, we will one day wake up and see that we have destroyed this world and wondered how it all happened.

And that is what I think when I read the words from Jeremiah today. I hear the words of the one true God telling this world that we have to make a change in the way we live, in the way we do things, and in the way we treat others in this country and around the world. Because of our indifference to the thoughts of others, because of our desire to believe that our thoughts are better and more important than those of others or that we are better or more important than others, we are on the verge of destroying this planet.

We have forgotten who we are, where we came from, and who brought us into this world. It is time we remember and it is time that we begin to change.

“The Great Tulip Boom and Bust”


This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 September 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 8: 19 – 9: 1, 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7, and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

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There is a certain irony to the parables and encounters with Jesus. The problem is that we do not often see the irony. A woman comes to the village well at mid-day, seeking both to gather water for her family and, as it turns out, to avoid the crowds that would be at the well in the early morning. When she leaves the well and her encounter with Jesus, she seeks out crowds to proclaim the majesty and the glory that is Christ.

A group comes to Jesus, seeking his wisdom and guidance. It seems that they have caught a woman in the act of adultery and they wanted to know if stoning is the appropriate punishment. Yet, they all leave when Jesus allows that the one who is without sin may cast the first stone. They came expecting to find that the power to control granted them righteousness but left finding out that righteousness was not a product of earthly power.

Throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, the people sought a kingdom on the earth and missed the message of the eternal kingdom in Heaven that was theirs for the asking. As I said, there was a certain irony in what Jesus said and did and what we heard and did in return.

The same is true for the parable for today. We read of a foreman who has been charged with squandering the property of his master. The master, apparently believing those around him, fires the foreman. The foreman immediately slashes the amounts owed the owner in order to settle the accounts and close the books. And as Jesus is telling this parable, he is commending the foreman for what are seemingly illegal or, at least, unethical acts.

We school our children to be honest and here is a passage where Jesus commends dishonesty. Did something get lost in the translation? Did Luke, in writing the stories of Jesus miss something? Or was it that something was left out?

This was a time of the Roman occupation of Israel. It was a time of high and oppressive taxes. Remember that tax collectors were considered sinners, not only because they were for the most part Israelites working for the Romans but also because they often collected more than was required, keeping the balance. In about a month, we shall encounter Zacchaeus, the tax collector. In repenting, Zacchaeus gives back up to four times what he collected, so it is clear that what he had collected was far more than was needed.

It has been suggested that those who had to pay the taxes had to do the same; that is, they had to raise the prices of the goods they made and sold far above their true worth in order to pay their taxes and have something left over. So it is that when the foreman slashes the prices that his manager is owed, he is merely asking for what is actually owed.  (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004 — additional notes by John Howard Yoder, "The Politics of Jesus")

It was, if you will, the popping of the bubble. We have come out of what financial people call the "great dot.com collapse." During the past few years, the price for various Internet and telecom related stocks rose far more rapidly than the actual value of the material and goods that the companies were producing. But this financial bubble was not the first time; prices for goods were far in excess of the value of the goods. We can look back to Holland in the 16th century and see that people have placed greater value on things than the things were actually worth.

Tulips came to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) from Turkey in 1559. Within ten years, single bulbs were fetching prices approaching the million-dollar range in today’s prices. Driven by the thought of instance wealth, individuals in the middle and lower classes were mortgaging their homes and businesses in order to buy the bulbs. But market collapsed, leaving investors penniless and worse.

But apparently, nobody learned from this boom and bust cycle. In the early 1700’s investors in Great Britain, including Isaac Newton, were pouring all of their savings into what became known as the South Sea Bubble. Based on unrealistic expectations of future profits, prices paid for shares reached extraordinary levels. And then the petals fell off. ("Investment bubble blues" by Bruce Cameron, published on the web at http://www.persfin.co.za on 11 July 2003)

There have been schemes and plans throughout the ages. The one I like was the one where what was being sold and what it would do were unknown. Yet, people poured their money into it. And this was in the 1700’s. Our own economic history is documented by great schemes and plans which only culminated in the bubbles bursting in 1929, 1967, and most recently in the 1990’s. All have been based on the notion of large profits from very little investment. And when the truth becomes apparent, when it becomes apparent that deception is more the driving force than reality, the bubble bursts and we are faced with the crisis of the moment.

Go back and read the Gospel messages for the past few weeks. These readings have spoken about the friends we choose, how we spend our time, and how we use our wealth. In this, the sixteenth chapter of Luke, we are familiar with who Jesus eats dinner with and how He feels about wealth. We sympathize with the rich young ruler who has been turned away because he cannot give up his wealth; we have watched in amazement and perhaps delight as the prostitute washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We even possibly made notes about the proper place to sit if invited to eat at someone else’s house.

Now we read of a worker faced with a crisis; a crisis not too different from what many workers today are encountering. This worker must quickly determine a course of action that will secure his future. Urgency defines his reality. But is this crisis any less urgent than the crisis others face each day, the crisis that Jesus interjects into our lives? Some how, to hear Jesus say "follow me" doesn’t pack the same punch as Donald Trump saying, "you’re fired!"

Yet, even if "follow me" sounds subtler, it too has high urgency and it too requires a life-changing response from us. Today, Jesus is telling us — one more time — that how we live right now has important consequences for God’s kingdom.

The presence of Jesus places a crisis in our midst. We cannot hear the call and give no answer. Even silence is answer, after all in silence we are saying no. And if our answer is yes, the decision to follow Jesus is not the end of the crisis but only the beginning. The crisis confronts us daily through the values we hold, the relationships we form, and even the way we use our money. Each little choice we make every day has important repercussions for God’s future. The time is at hand. How we will live into God’s future now that we know God’s expectations of us for the present? (Adapted from "Shrewd Investment" by Jennifer E. Copeland, Christian Century, September 7, 2004)

The words of Jeremiah speak to us today. Jeremiah speaks of the people of Israel trying to find solace and hope in other things. One of the commentaries that I use says that the Hebrew words for "foreign idols" was "foreign futilities." Jeremiah was noting that the people looked for deliverance in useless and motionless images. Instead of trusting in the covenant with God, they sought their future elsewhere. And they quickly found out that there was no future, no hope. We sing of the balm in Gilead but it is gone; the one thing that will ease our pain is not there.

Paul reminds us that our future is not found on earth but in Heaven and that whatever price we may wish to pay for admission, it is not enough. The price to pay has been paid by the blood of Christ. No matter what we do, God will have God’s future.

So what shall we do? We are called to take care of God’s world, to know our lives are God’s. But we have spent so many hours and days living for ourselves. We like to have money, to eat and drink, to enjoy the rewards of the powerful. Pray each day, reflect on God’s word, or serve the poor? Those are the actions of fools in this day and time. But are those not the things that we should be doing? Have we not squandered our master’s gifts? (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004)

I always hope that these words go beyond the boundaries of this building, for that is what the Gospel is supposed to do. We live in a time when the response to violence is more violence. We live in a time and a society where a person’s appearance is more important than what is inside that person.

I know that I have told this story before, though perhaps not here. In November of 1965, Linda Fuller told her husband that she was leaving him. So absorbed had he been in his business and the making of 1 million dollars a year that he failed to see her slipping away from him. Panicked by this wake-up call, he gathered together his children and took them and his wife south to Florida.

On the way, they stopped to visit friends in Georgia. This was how Millard Fuller came to meet Clarence Jordan. And from this meeting and from the challenge that Clarence Jordan put before Millard Fuller came the idea for Habitat for Humanity.

We are not called to do something spectacular. But we are called to be resourceful and use what we have been given. At our disposal we have hope in God’s justice, faith in God’s peace, and trust in God’s grace. These are the best possible resources. In using them, others will say, "the master commended them because they acted shrewdly."

Those that bought into the great tulip craze of the 16th century and all the other great speculative ventures that have transpired and got out before the market collapsed were all "shrewd" investors. But somewhere along the line, there was that one person who was the last person left; the one person who would lose it all when the market collapsed. The foreman in the gospel was the last in line.

But his actions allow him to acquire the greater rewards of friendship and the gratitude of his neighbors and those from whom he acted unkindly. Jesus declared "practice the jubilee which I am announcing. By liberating others from their debts to you, liberate yourself from the bonds that keep you from being ready for the kingdom of God."1

The interesting thing about the great Tulip Boom and Bust was that you bought the tulips before they bloomed. Your expectations of great wealth and security were based on something that had not happened. And there was every bit the chance that instead of a spectacular bloom, it would be a bust and your fortune would be wiped out. Would it not be a great thing if, through our faith in God and the uses of the resources given to us, that we have the most beautiful bloom ever known?