“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?

Forgiving and Forgetting


This was the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 September 1999.  I presented this message at Walker Valley United Methodist Church and the Scriptures were Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.

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When I first moved to Minnesota back in 1991, the department I was going to work for asked me if I wanted to use an IBM-type computer or a Macintosh computer. Now, having just completed a three hundred-page book and a number of other manuscripts on an IBM-type computer, I didn’t really feel like learning a new system. So I told them I wanted an IBM-type computer.

As it turned out, everyone else in the department was using a Macintosh and I was viewed with a cautious eye. And the caution turned to anger and shouting every time I tried to print something on the department printer. Every time I would send a print job to the printer, the system would “crash” and anyone “downstream” from my office would not be able to do anything.. Since I was the only PC user in the environment, the other users in the department naturally that this problem was totally and completely my fault.

Now, for the most part, these same individuals were new to the world of computers, by they PC or Mac, so this was a natural reaction. But as it turned out, it was not a problem related to the machine, per se, or the user of the machine. The fault was in a faulty network card, the piece of equipment installed in the computer to enable to work with devices on the network. Once the card was replaced everything was okay.

But this situation is emblematic of what we see happening in our society today. No matter what the problem is or how simple the solution, the first thing done is to fix the blame on someone.

Paul is addressing a similar situation in the Epistle reading for today. At the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, there was a serious division in the church. For some of the early Christians felt that to be a true Christian, one had to first convert to Judaism. But for others, this was not considered an important step. And much discussion had gone into whether or not one had to follow Jewish dietary laws and observe the Jewish calendar.

Paul basically told the Romans that they should forget the difference and recognize all that that was needed was to simply follow Jesus.

How we react to a problem and the solution that we offer is what the Gospel reading today is about. As a society today, we are just as likely to demand more from those whom wrong us than to offer to those whom we have wronged, traits not that much different from Jesus’ time.

I might add that the solution for the payment of debts that is offered in the parable that Jesus told was not simple an institution of Israel of that time. Up until the 18th century, people could still be thrown in jail for not paying their debts and would not be released until such time as the debts were paid. Of course, there is a certain lack of logic in a solution that puts you in a place where it is impossible to do what it is you must do to get out. In many of Wesley’s early writings, you can read how he felt about the injustices of debtor’s prisons.

For many people, the only alternative to debtor’s prison was indentured servitude and that is how many people came to America in the early 18th century.

But in the parable that Jesus is telling us, a master demands payment from one of his slaves, which the slave cannot make. Just as the slave and all of possessions, his wife, and children are to be sold to pay off this debt, the slave begs his master for mercy. The master quickly does so.

But when this now debt-free slave encounters another slave who owes him less than 1% of what he had owned, he demands payment, and failing to receive an immediate payment, he had the second slave thrown into debtor’s prison.

Jesus told his disciples that they should love one another, as they would have others love them. This parable is one that reinforces that commandment. If we are to expect mercy from our Father, should we not grant the same mercy to our brothers and sisters here on earth. Jesus pointed out that should we fail to do so, our master would cancel all that he has done as well.

The Old Testament reading is a clear example of the power that God possesses and what he can do to protect his people. The Pharaoh, after all of the plagues, the destruction and death, relented and let the Israelite people go only to quickly change his mind after they had left. The destruction of the Egyptian army was a clear demonstration that the Israelites were God’s chosen people and that He would protect them as well as a clear demonstration of what God’s wrath could be like.

A second point that the readings for today bring out is how we are to act in a society comprised of many different individuals and beliefs. Jesus spoke of a compassion that went beyond simple forgiveness.

One of His most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table. “Table fellowship” – sharing a meal with somebody – had a significance in Jesus’ social world that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. More specifically, rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the purity system of the day. These rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it should be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was one form of social ostracism. In Jesus’ time, the meal was a microcosm of the social system, table fellowship an embodiment of social vision.

The inclusiveness seen in Jesus’ table fellowship was reflected in the shape of the movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating all the boundaries that society had erected at that time. At Jesus table back then, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and Scribes, were women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, the marginalized and people of stature who found what Jesus had to say attractive. We celebrate this same table fellowship as the Lord’s Supper today.

Communion, the Lord’s Supper, can be seen in two ways. There are those who see it as a memorial, a way of remembering what Christ had done fall humanity. But other see the Lord’s Supper as quality spiritual time, a means of becoming closer to God. As we come together for this occasion, we can see both of these visions.

On a number of occasions in the New Testament besides what we call the Last Supper, Jesus commanded the disciples to share in a fellowship meal. The Last Supper is the commemoration of the Passover, of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And telling his disciples that this was a meal that he really wanted to eat with them (Luke 22: 15), Jesus was showing the importance of Passover.

In 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26 we read:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and, when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

One critical word in this passage is remembrance. In the Old Testament, remembrance is something God does. God remembers his chosen people in mercy and grace. Because God remembers, Israel is to remember. In the New Testament, remembrance is more that just a mental thought, it is an act. As God remembered Israel and acted, so to must Christians remember God’s action in Christ.

By remembering God’s action in Christ, Christians bear witness and testify to our gracious and loving God. In telling the Corinthians that Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”, Paul was telling them to be an active witness to God’s love for humanity!” By doing this, we can refer others and ourselves back to God.

We live in a world that often times demands actions that simply make bad things worse. Peter asked how many times we should forgive our brothers. Jesus said not just seven times, but seventy times seven. The compassion that He expressed, both in how we are to forgive and how we are to live, is expressed in the communion we are about to partake.

What we do, we do because we remember Christ, remembering that no one was shut out from His table. We in the United Methodist Church serve an open table, inviting all that so desire to come. We do not set down any requirements that must met before hand but only ask that you come with an open heart and mind.

A Sense of Community


As I mentioned in the post “A New Start”, I have used Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20 as a set of lectionary readings for four different Sundays.  This is the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (8 September 2002) at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY).

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It is always interesting to see what information I get during the week prior to a particular sermon or how the particular Scripture readings for a particular Sunday happened to fit into that particular sermon. For those that might think otherwise, the Scriptures for use each Sunday come from the modern lectionary and were pre-determined a number of years ago. Unless there is a specific reason, most pastors in all denominations use this lectionary. Not all pastors use the same three scripture readings in the same way as I do and it has always been interesting to see how other pastors have used the same three readings.

Coupled with the selection of Scripture readings for today was a monthly newsletter that I received this week. The topic for this month’s newsletter, prepared and distributed by a Christian layperson out of Texas, was communion and its meaning and relevance. I won’t go into the majority of what she wrote because she was writing of what communion meant to her.

It is important that we realize that each of us has our own reasons for the celebration of communion. But our reasons for communion should not be on the how but on the why of the celebration. Communion for me has been and will always be both a celebration of the present and a remembrance of the past. It is a celebration that in Jesus’ death and resurrection I was saved from the slavery of sin and death and that as long as I continue to believe, the rewards of heaven are mine. It is a remembrance of that night in Jerusalem when Jesus gathered with his twelve disciples and possibly others to celebrate Passover and transform that ancient celebration of the Jews into an on-going celebration of life and faith.

It is a special time, made even more so by the nature of what transpires during the ceremony. One time, for reasons long forgotten, communion was celebrated with the 100-year old crystal communion given to the church by a faithful member. It truly gave a meaning to the celebration that was not normally there. And the one time that does stick in mind most vividly was the time that I took communion at my grandmother’s church in St. Louis. I was probably no more that 12 or so, perhaps older as I took this communion.

Now my grandmother’s church had been a Lutheran Church but changed denominational affiliation during the last big fight in the Missouri Synod. This, I am sure, is why I was allowed to take communion. So I came up to the communion rail with my mother and accepted the wafer that was offered. Thinking it was bread like I was used to, I took and ate it at the direction of the pastor. But it was one of those bland cardboard tasting wafers not the bread that I was used to. So I immediately swallowed the wine that was offered and discovered in my sensory dismay that it was really wine and not the grape juice of my home church. That is and will always be a memorable communion for me, though perhaps for not the right reasons.

I know that there are some that feel communion is only vital if celebrated every week. Perhaps that is so; but I worry that by simply performing something each week and not giving any thought to what transpires during the communion ritual, the ritual is quickly transformed into just that, a ritual without meaning or context. And I know that there are some churches where the act of communion is never done or done on a frequency best measured in eons or other measures of geological times. The Evangelical United Brethren Church, the church through which I claim my Christian heritage, held to a quarterly communion schedule meaning once every three months. And communion in the early days of Tompkins Corner was limited to the time when the circuit rider came, which might be once every six weeks or so.

I don’t know how most churches have come to a monthly communion schedule but I know that it works for me both, as a participant in the service and one who must lead the service. There is enough time between each communion to make each service real and inviting to all that partake while keeping it alive and fresh each time.

It is this need to keep it alive and fresh that makes the celebration of communion so important and more so this week as we face the most trying of times. For communion has in it’s meaning community and communion is a celebration of community. No doubt by now you have seen or heard the commercials on television put out by the communications arm of our parent body. The theme of these commercials is “Open minds, open hearts, and open doors.” At a time when our faith is being tested in a manner that could never be imagined, we as a church must remember that there are those in this world who feel that all that has transpired over the past year is a sign that God has forgotten them.

But God has not forgotten them or us; one reason for communion today is to remind us that God did not forget us. And as United Methodists at communion, we remind the world that our table is open to all and not just a select few. There are churches in this country today where the communion rail is open only to those who pass a particular test of membership. In all honesty, I could never belong to such a church nor could I ever conceive of offering communion in such a manner. It is not ours to judge the worthiness of those who come to the rail; those who come to the rail come because they are not worthy and are seeking the grace and forgiveness that is possible at that time.

We need only to remember why we even celebrate communion in the first place. When Jesus meet with the twelve that evening, they were celebrating Passover, though the blood of the Lamb of that Passover had not yet been shed. We are reminded in the Old Testament reading for today the preparations of the Israelites as they gathered their belongings and quickly had one last meal before going on the Exodus and a journey to the Promised Land.

The Passover meal that the Jews celebrate each year is a remembrance of that night described in the Old Testament reading. It is meant to evoke a memory of that evening of rushing about and trying to get things together for the trip. But I think it also serves to remind the Jews of the trip itself, of the days in the wilderness when things looked bleak and at times like God had left them to die in the dry arid land of the Sinai.

The trip from Egypt to the Promised Land was far from a pleasure trip or a simple vacation and much has been made of the time it took and the manner in which the Israelites traveled. But as we will hear in the coming weeks, it was also a time of turmoil and disagreement. On more than one occasion, the Israelites were ready to pack it in and go back to Egypt. If it was not for the lack of water, it was for the lack of food. But through it all they remained a community and even if they didn’t want to, they all understood that it was as a group they would live and die together.

One of the primary reasons why the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites during the Exodus was to give them that sense of community, of how to behave in a community. Remember that the first three of the commandments tell them how to act towards God; the last seven tell how to act amongst each other. It was as if God said to the Israelites, “If you are to be a community of believers, this is what you will believe and this is how you will live as a community.”

It may seem to us today that the problems of a community of believers are unique to this day and age but such is not the case. It seems like every other paragraph in Paul’s letters deals with the actions of one person with another in their community. John’s writing of the Book of Revelation dealt as much with the relationships of people in a church community as it did with apocalyptic visions of the future.

And even Jesus had to deal with discourse amongst his own. That is what the Gospel for today deals with. Jesus simply told his followers that if two people disagreed on a subject, they should attempt to deal with it between themselves and to do so privately. If need be, impartial witnesses should be brought in, to vouch for the testimony of both parties if need be. But Jesus made it very clear that at no time should either of the two parties ever do things either without witnesses or in secret, for to do so would go against what Jesus was preaching.

Paul reminded the Romans that the relationship between each of them was founded in the fellowship of Christ and that relationship was founded on the laws given to them by God. We are reminded that is still true today; we are also reminded that the community in which we live, whether we want it or not, is much bigger than the world of Jerusalem when Jesus first gave his warnings about the relations between others or the world of the Romans.

As we come to the table today, we come seeking to renew our relationship with Christ first established that night in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago and to also renew our sense of community with those whom we see each day and each week.

What Does It Mean To Be Called?


I am preaching this Sunday at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (8 Shady Lane, South Salem, NY 10590-1932 – Location of church); service is at 9.  This is the eleventh church that I have been at in the past ten weeks; it has been a busy summer.

The Scriptures for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28.

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And the man known as the Preacher wrote, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Though the words of Ecclesiastes 3 do not say so, I think there are times when we are called to do things and there are times when we call upon others to do the same.

Sometimes the calls come from our children to tell us some piece of good news. They have been accepted into college or they have made the Dean’s list. And sometimes it is to tell us that they are about to become parents themselves.

We get calls from our children in the middle of the night as they struggle with a myriad of problems that all seem to be major problems but which we, as wise and learned parents, can solve with a few well-chosen words. Like the daughter who frantically called her mother one night and asked her to come over. They were moving to a new apartment and needed some help because the car had a flat tire and she also had a term paper due in two days. And all her mother could say was, “I can’t come tonight because you live in Scotland and it isn’t easy to get a ticket at the last minute to fly across the Atlantic.”

And we are called when there is sorrow in our lives, when loved ones become ill or we lose someone special in our lives. Perhaps the saddest words that we must ever speak to a friend or one we love are the words that come at a time of grief and loss. We are always at a loss at times like these and we fear the day when we will receive such a call. At times such as these, we look to our church family and our church friends to bring comfort and aid when we are in pain and grief.

The church and its people have always been the single source of comfort in the lives of so many people. From its very beginning, the church was a community of believers gathering together to share their belief, their resources, their support and comfort. Yet today, the people of the church cry out in pain and anguish. People whom we have grown up with and seen almost every Sunday tell us that they are leaving the church because the church no longer speaks to them or no longer seems relevant to the problems of the world.

And there are those individuals who perhaps grew up in the church but left at the first opportunity. Now they seek solace and comfort but are unable to find it. They cannot find it in the church of their youth because that church cast them aside as quickly as they left. They cannot find it in the church of the present time because the words spoken in such churches speak against their lifestyle, their race, their economic status or their friends. The church of their youth that taught them that Jesus loved all the children has become the church that excludes all but a select few.

It would be nice if I could say that these were only metaphors or bits and pieces of evidence that I have heard. But I have seen too many examples of the church being the private chapel for too many people, open only to those whom they wish to let in. I have seen too many cases of individuals trying to find a church home but being told to go elsewhere. And I have found that I am not alone.

From the days that I first moved to New York, I have subscribed to a monthly newsletter called Connections that is written by Barbara Wendland, a lay person in the United Methodist Church. This newsletter was her ministry, her effort to speak and write about the state and nature of the church today and where it is headed. But it was the very state of the church and where it was headed that has caused her to wonder if she cannot find what she once found in the church someplace else. In last month’s issue, this wonderment led her to believe that she needed to take a sabbatical and view her options. One of those options was to leave the church that had been the centerpiece of her life.

In this month’s issue, she printed notes from people, laity and clergy, who expressed her same thoughts. The church no longer speaks in the voice that it once spoke; the church is no longer relevant or capable of dealing with the problems of society. The church has turned the clock back two or three hundred years and proclaimed that it is the church of tomorrow.

The church that was founded two thousand years ago was founded as a community of believers brought together by a common belief in Christ, a belief that came from being told about Christ, not from reading about Him in a book. They had no rules or any idea of how a church was created; they developed the “rules” of the church as they went along.

We often forget that the early church did not have the Bible that we have. Books themselves were expensive and only the rich could afford to buy books. But even if books were available for the people, it would have meant nothing since most of the people of that time were illiterate.

What they had and what they shared was a collection of stories handed down from generation to generation, from those who were there at the first Easter. They had the letters from Paul and people who wrote letters in Paul’s name, which the literate members of the congregation would read to them.

Somewhere over the course of time, we have trivialized our past. We make assumptions about the early church that are more reflective of later times. The church of the early days bears little resemblance to the church of today.

We ignore how the Bible was developed. We are told that the Bible is God’s creation but then we read about books of the Bible that were not included and the discussions by men of what was to be included.

We hear that the words of the Bible are the way and the truth and that is the way it is and will be. Yet those very truthful words are sometimes contradictory and incomplete. Those who proclaim its inerrancy and validity today fail to appreciate that it is stated in the Bible that men could have more than one wife, that parents could stone a rebellious son or daughter, and those who have visual problems cannot serve as clergy (I guess that pretty well kills my career plans).

We read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans and how he applauded the efforts of the women to build the church; yet we later read other words that people say he wrote which clearly deny women a place of authority in the church. We have transformed Paul from the first missionary and door-opener to the first of those who would close the door in the face of those who need the church.

They speak of a moral purity that is more a reflection of their own values than the values written in the Bible.

“In our era of techno-savvy megachurches and postmodern emerging churches, holiness (when it is discussed at all) is often associated with moral behavior such as sexual purity, financial honesty, and commitment to private prayer. While we’ve cast off old, legalistic notions of holiness, we’ve merely replaced them with private, moralistic notions. We act as if holiness were either outdated or something that characterizes only a small (if important) part of our lives.”

“To be sure, biblical terms translated ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what scripture is talking about. Instead the most basic meaning of the words is to be ‘set apart’ or ‘dedicated’ to God—to belong to God. ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.” (From Christianity Today, May 9, 2007 issue reprinted in August, 2007, issue of Context

The idea of Biblical inerrancy is a relatively new concept. It was developed in the 19th century and championed by literalistic, biblically ignorant, self-appointed leaders so that they could control their congregations. But those who proclaim its inerrancy and truth want to lock the truth away, much like the church of the “Middle Ages” prevented people from translating it from the Latin into modern tongues.

We are told that we cannot question the words of the Bible because to question those words is to question our faith. We are told that the moment we begin to question our faith, our faith will have no value. In part, that is true because if the basis for our faith is weak and incomplete, the act of questioning it will destroy it. But if our faith is strong and you understand from where your faith comes, questioning it can only make it stronger.

Over the years the Bible has been transformed from a story of who we are into some sort of factual history book, a book in which we seek to find out who did what, where and when. It wasn’t written that way and it wasn’t intended to be read that way. It was a story that told the people why; why God created the earth and why God spoke to Abram and Isaac and Moses. It was a story to explain our purpose in life and on this planet. It was meant to be a living and breathing document that one could turn to at all times, even in the midst of the turmoil and strife of today. (Adapted from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)

The people today are like the Israelites in Egypt who called out in pain and agony. In slavery, they feared that God had forgotten them and was going to leave them to die far from the lands of their birth.

People today call for a church that is responsive to the needs of the people, for a church that once again stands up for righteousness and justice. They want a church that shows them that God loves them rather than casts them out.

They want the church that was formed two thousand years ago as a community of believers that bound together for the benefit of all and were a threat to the status quo. Yet people find a church today that is institutionalized and rigid and seeks to maintain the status quo.

But where is the Moses of today who will lead the people out of slavery and back to the Promised Land? There are those today who proclaim that they are such leaders and that they know the words of God, even before God has spoken them. Yet today, these modern-day leaders will tell the people that they have only themselves to blame for the pain and agony that they are experiencing; that death and destruction are signs of God’s wrath and anger against a sinful community.

These leaders build walls that keep people out instead of tearing them down so that people can come in. They offer solutions that sound Biblical but yet are not found in the Bible.

People read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans but they don’t hear them from many people in the church. They read the words of Paul to feed your enemies when they are hungry or give them drink when they are thirsty, words that echo the words of Jesus who spoke of going the extra mile and giving the cloak off your back. Instead they hear a church that calls for the destruction of people or tells them that others who have never heard of Jesus are automatically condemned to a life in Sheol.

There are some who will tell you that the Devil is a real person and that he may even be walking on this planet today. Whether or not that is true is the subject of another debate, by those more versed in determining the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin? (Nowadays only four angels can dance there. Formerly there was no limit, but OSHA passed the Angel Safety Law recently, which also requires that the pin must be inspected twice each year for structural defects.) But the presence of the “evil one” in whatever form he may take is clearly present.

When Jesus spoke of his impending death at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes, Peter rebuked Him. But Peter’s response was the response of the community, of a thinking that was as ancient and fixed as those who sought to control the lives of the people who followed Jesus. To follow Jesus, to answer the call requires that we see the world in a different light, that we respond to the world in a different way. These are the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, words that we heard again today.

We live in a culture where much that is unholy, superficial and self-indulgent is glorified. As a society, we have become more and more cynical. Our leaders present themselves as idealists and they talk of great things but then they are exposed as charlatans or liars. And even if one amongst us were not like the others, our cynicism says that they too will change.

But there are those who answered the call; whose response was to seek a change. Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were mortified by the rallying of the German churches behind Hitler; Martin Luther King and Clarence Jordan were grieved by the church’s shrill defense of segregation. Isaac Watts was bored in church and our own John Wesley and George Whitefield had to preach outside the church because laws would not permit them to preach inside.

Each of these individuals is a testimony to the power of God to call forth heroes from an un-heroic church. There are those today who feel that you can be a Christian without the church or perhaps a better Christian without the hypocrisy of church life. But it is only in church, engaged with other Christians in prayer, worship, and service that we can gain the power to move mountains. Without the church, we would never hear God’s witness. St. Augustine said that “really great things, when discussed by little people, can usually make such people grow big.” In today’s world, it is often difficult to hear God calling you. The noise of the world can drown out His soft and quiet voice. It is why we come together on Sundays, to hear His voice in our songs and our words. We have been called together as a community of believers to show that God is present in this world and His presence is one of good. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)

What does it mean to be called today? What does it mean to hear God calling to you through Christ over the tumult of life? What does it mean when God calls you to go out into the world and be Christ’s disciple?

It does not mean that we accept sin and evil in our lives but that we oppose sin and evil. We are not called to be martyrs to the faith, at least as we understand the word. But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word that means “witness” and that is what we are called to do, be witnesses for Christ.

What we have done is turn the remembrance of martyrs into a special cult of saints that can be observed from a safe distance. Martyrs can teach us much about the immense worth of our faith and at the same time the worthlessness of much that others give high value to. We need to see that it is the cause for which a martyr died that is right, not the penalty. Martin Luther King’s words on the higher value of truth, spoken in 1965 at the time of the march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that would be marked by violence, echo the words spoken by St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit – but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.” (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)

It will require that we change our thinking, that we see the church as it was in the beginning, a community of believers bound together for the common good. It will require that we change the church from a monolithic and ancient relic of times long past back into the living, breathing embodiment of Christ on earth. It will take time and effort. In a world that expects things now, where our food is fast and our news comes in short sound-bites, it is going to be a difficult task.

It means extending the love of Christ to all, not just a few, just as Christ Himself extended the Love of Our Father to all. It means living in peace with all, not condemning those who live a life of good but do not necessarily believe as we do.

It means studying the Bible as it was meant to be studied and it means living the life as it was meant to be lived, not just three hours on a Sunday morning but 168 hours throughout the week. It means rebuilding the community that first came together so many years ago and reaffirming the relationship that brought us together.

What does it mean to be called today? It means we are called to build the church; it means that we are called to be Christ’s disciple in a world that may reject what Christ did; it means that we are to do what Christ taught us to do. And while we may feel that we cannot do it by ourselves, we remember the words of God that day some three thousand years ago when he called Moses and told him that He would be with him step by step on the journey.

We are called to begin that journey again today.