“Who Is Your God?”

This will be on the back page of the Sunday, September 09, 2018 (16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) bulletin for Fishkill UMC.  Services are at 10 am; come and join us this Sunday.

That is a question many have asked down through the ages; it is still asked today.  And for many, despite their pronouncements to the contrary, their God is simply a thought expressed in the words of books, not something that is a part of their life.  Now, as an educator, there is something to be said for old-fashioned “book learning” but I prefer learning that goes outside the classroom.

I am currently taking a course on faith and science and, in the context of one of the discussions, a fellow class member wrote that their mother always told them to put on their gloves when her hands were cold.  My momma would always make comments concerning windows, doors, televisions and our effort to heat and cool the universe.

John Wooden, the famed UCLA basketball coach, would often encourage his players with statements such as, “be quick but don’t hurry” and “failing to plan is planning to fail.”  His players wise to the ways of the world would often chuckle at these parcels of wisdom but would later find themselves echoing those same thoughts when they became coaches or fathers.

What we must realize is that wisdom is the sum of our education and our experience.

Is your God simply words written in a book somewhere or is He a part of your life and experience?  Will those who have read or heard of God find in you that which they are seeking?

~~Tony Mitchell

“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 Simple Act

Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Proverbs 31: 10 -31; James 3: 13 – 4:3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9- 30 – 37.


This is not a pro-union piece even though I am decidedly a union man (I have been a member of the UAW and SEIU as well as the American Federation of Teachers). I have seen enough instances where union leadership was in bed with management to not trust the “paper” that they both sign. And there are many unions today where the leadership has been corrupted by the same allure of power and greed that, to me, dominates upper levels of management in most companies.

I have worked for at least one boss who would have busted the union at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t that he was against the workers but he resented the intrusion of union management into the operations of the plant. I also know that even without the union, the working conditions in that plant would not have deteriorated and our benefits package would have been a good and reasonable one. But when the union protested this manager’s policies, the company fired him and brought in a new manager. The plant was closed within a year because it was no longer productive and I will always attribute that move by management to the discord that existed between the new management and the union leadership. I have seen other companies close their plants rather than work with unions as well.

But, were it not for unions, working conditions in this country today would probably be no different from working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries and children would still be working in the mines and factories like they were when John Wesley first began his ministry. Were it not for the union movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, there would probably be no middle class in this country today, merely peasants and serfs working for the lords and ladies of the manor.

I have relatives who worked in the mills of North Carolina where anti-union tactics were used to maintain segregation. The white workers were told that unions would bring in black employees and put them out on the street, so the white workers blindly followed their management and said “no” to unions. Of course, management didn’t do anything to make the working conditions in the mill any better (and believe me, working in the mills in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not an easy job). When the white workers began to find out that they were being used by management, things began to change. Now, of course, to keep from unionizing the plants and the mills, companies have closed the mills in the south and shoe factories in the small towns of the mid-west and sent the work to factories to Mexico, Taiwan, and even mainland China where working conditions are reminiscent of the “good old days”, where the workers are legally exploited and the workers in this U. S. are just plain out of luck.

I suppose it could have been worse if Crystal Lee Sutton hadn’t held up that sign the day they fired her. As the stories on Truthout noted (“You Probably Knew Crystal Sutton” and Real “Norma Rae” Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment”), you probably wouldn’t recognize that name but she was the union organizer that Sally Field played in the movie “Norma Rae”. She was fired for trying to organize a strike and get a pay raise from $2.65 to $2.73 in 1973. But before she left, she stood up with a sign saying “union” and the workers went on strike. A simple act was all it took and the nature of workers’ rights in a mill in North Carolina changed.

Crystal Lee Sutton died last week of brain cancer and she was engaged in another struggle. This time, it was with over health care. The battle for workers’ rights is more than wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is for the right of the individual, any individual, to be treated fairly and equally. Her act of holding up a sign was a simple one but it changed a system.

Another individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this simple act by Gandhi, of picking up grains of salt on April 6, 1930, would ultimately bring down the British Empire and result in independence for India and Pakistan.

A black lady, going home from work one day, was hot and tired. So she sat down in the first seat that she came to on the bus. But the law said that she had to sit in the back of the bus and not the front where the available seat was and if another person, a white person, demanded that seat, she was to give it up. But Rosa Parks would not get up and with that simple act of defiance on December 1, 1955 initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. Normally, we would think that the simple act of sitting at a lunch counter or in a booth at a diner was nothing special. But then and there, the seats at the counter and in the booth were for “whites only”; blacks had to stand if they wanted to eat there.

The four young men were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said “no” and remained seated. This simple act of defiance was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests would ultimately lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. It would spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. This simple act of civil disobedience brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.

The sad part about this is that we haven’t learned yet that all humans are the equal. Many people today still treat people in accordance with the color of their skin, the nature of their religion, their sexuality or their economic status rather than the content of their character.

By the simple act of holding a child on His lap, Jesus would change the nature of society. In the Gospel reading for today, we are told that the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest, who would hold the seat of power in the God’s Kingdom on earth after Jesus was crucified.

Jesus put a child among them and said that who ever would welcome a child would welcome Me. How many times in the Gospel have we read where an act of Jesus ran counter to the traditions and mores of society? And how many times did the powers-that-be and elites of society rebel at that thought and reject those actions?

It is not immediately clear what the disciples thought when Jesus did this. The whole purpose for Jesus putting the child among the disciples was to show the nature of what they were getting into; that society would not remain the same in God’s Kingdom. This little demonstration was prompted by Jesus because the disciples were arguing about who would take His place after His death.

Was Jesus’ act of holding the child spontaneous? Or was it a wise use of the moment? Did Jesus use this simple, singular act to illustrate a point that went beyond traditional or normal thinking?

As James points out in the second lesson, you cannot follow the rules of the world if you expect to be wise and understanding. Everything about the rules of this world is counter to the rules of God’s Kingdom. Why is it that the writer of Proverbs so vividly rejoices in the wisdom and virtue of a woman? And notice also how the woman in that reading is hardly the model that so many fundamentalists today say women should be.

Our use of wisdom is to keep the worldly ways and wonder why nothing seems to work. The ways of the kingdom are not often easily understood. To take on the world, to make that one simple act, you must be prepared and you must be prepared. If we are to face the world, if we are to change the world, then we must seek the wisdom that God offers us.

Gandhi told those who marched with him on the salt march that Britain wouldn’t cave in when they picked up the salt crystals; Rosa Parks knew that she would go to jail for her act of disobedience and the black people who rode the buses had to work together to get people to work without the busses during the boycott. David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil, the four young men who began the Woolworth sit-in knew that what they were doing and what those who would join in their protest would be meet with very stiff resistance. You cannot make that simple act without wisdom, the type of wisdom that James speaks of in the second reading, the type of wisdom the writer illustrates in the reading from the Old Testament.

We are challenged today to see beyond the limitations of this world, a world in which the rich, the powerful, the economic elite dominate. We are called to see beyond a world in which there is little hope, where justice does not flow like a river and only those with money are entitled to care. We are called to bring forth a message of hope and equality, of righteousness and justice; we are called to bring forth the message that offers health to the sick, compassion to the dying, and justice to the oppressed and downtrodden. Injustice in all forms need not be accepted just because that is the norm. Justice must be pursued and established authority be confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted in part from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

That is what Gandhi did; that is what Rosa Parks did; that is what David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil did, and that is what Crystal Lee Sutton did.

On March 11, 1930, a group of people began a march to the sea, solely to pick up some grains of salt. And though they were beaten and some were killed, in the end, the British Empire began to crumble and the world changed.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white woman and the Montgomery bus boycott began. In the end, the laws that segregated the busses of Montgomery, Alabama were changed.

On February 1, 1963 four young men sat at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat there patiently, waiting for service that never came. And when the store closed for the day, they went home only to return the next day. But this time, there were fifteen others and then 300 and then 1000. The world changed with one simple, purposeful act.

In May, 1973, a young mother held up a sign on which she had written “union.” She had been fired for even thinking that to unionize was a possibility. But in the end, her efforts brought about change.

Each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference. All it takes is one simple act; to open one’s heart and mind and accept Christ as your Savior. With that act, things begin to change. The world can no longer be seen in the same light as it was before.

Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair?

This is the message that I gave on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 28 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.


It sounds very simple but it is a puzzle with some interesting considerations.

A barber posts the following sign in his window, “I cut the hair of all those men in town, and only those men in town that do not cut their own hair.”

This is a paradox for if the barber cuts his own hair, then he belongs to that group of men who cut their own hair. But that is the one grouping of men whose hair the barber does not cut. If someone else cut’s the barber’s hair, then he does not cut his own hair and the sign says that he does. Either the sign is wrong or nobody, including the barber, can cut the barber’s hair.

This paradox, which we should not and will not spend a lot of time discussing, was developed by the mathematician Bertrand Russell and is related to set theory and logic. Much has been done with this problem, both in jest and serious study of what constitutes sets and groups. Paradoxes are those special problems that intrigue us by defying all logic and reason. There are many paradoxes in life but only because we try to apply logic in situations where logic is the one thing that cannot be applied.

It would seem that we are faced with a number of such paradoxes in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. James says in the Epistle lesson for today, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” (James 5: 13) and the disciples are grumbling that others are saving people in the name of Jesus, which to them is a clear violation of the notion that only they, the chosen twelve, can do the work of Jesus.

But the problem is that when we limit ourselves or force our thinking from a limited viewpoint, we are never going to see the whole picture. The problem for the disciples, at least at this point in the Gospel story is that they have lost sight of the true kingdom and think only instead of their own power and territory. Like the early Israelites during the Exodus who reacted to the dangers of their journey with fear, the disciples have reacted with fear and jealousy to the notion that others can heal in Jesus’ name.

Remember that during the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were constantly complaining. At points along the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they complained about the lack of food and the lack of water. Each time God responded with the needed items. The transition from slavery to freedom was not the easy step they, the Israelites, felt it would be. They would have accepted the comforts of slavery rather than the nourishment of God; they would have traded their freedom for a few leeks and cucumbers.

Even Moses was getting upset with them. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at one… and do not let me see my misery.”(Numbers 11: 15)  And when God responds to Moses’ pleas and empowers others to assume the responsibility of leadership, Joshua gets upset. Joshua is Moses’ chief assistant and the heir apparent to the leadership role of Israel; yet, he begs Moses to stop this sharing of power and responsibilities. Here is an opportunity for a community in which all are prepared and willing to share the burdens of the communities. But the one who should most want the additional help is the loudest to complain.

Jesus reacts to the disciples’ complaints by noting that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9: 40)  Obviously, our desires to limit the work of God to only our hands or our church or our faith are nothing new. But egoism and territorialism were rejected from the very beginning. God’s prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us. And we can be sure that spectacular examples of blindness and ignorance will come from our ranks just as easily as they come from others. Only when we assume responsibility for our own faith community and discern together can we hope to see clearly and act rightly.

The prayer that James calls for in the passage that we read today is not a prayer of hopelessness, nor is it a paradox. For we have to look beyond the call of those who are suffering to pray. We need to see that it is a call for the community to act, to come to the aid of those in need.

That is the whole reason for the story of Ester that we read today. From one standpoint, the Book of Ester is in itself a paradox. There is no mention of God or His name Yahweh found in the entire book. Some say that this is because of the author’s chosen point of view.

The author of this book may have felt that the Jewish people who remained in Persia and did not return to Israel (remember this book comes after Nehemiah and the return of the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian captivity) were people cut off from the principal blessings of God. Thus, the absence of God’s name is a way of expressing God’s distance from them. At the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection.

The second view is that it is written to explain to the Persian people what the Jewish celebration of Purim is about. It explains the emphasis on the Persian king but writes about the Jewish people in a detached manner. This also may explain why the book is in the only one in the Bible that does not directly mention God.

The Book of Esther is a story of a young orphan girl who rises from obscurity to become queen while hiding a deadly secret. It is a story with romantic love, power, intrigue, and a startling exposé at the end. It is the type of story that could be one of those less memorable made for TV movies. But through the twists and turns it is a story about God’s character. At a time when He seemed so distant, God was preparing to deliver His people.

The celebration of Purim reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believer, even believers far away. I think that what we have to remember today is that our community is not a limited one but rather one with many members in many places. And because there are so many who are not here, we must make the effort to reach out to those not here, as a reminder that they are not forgotten.

I would hope that each and every member of the community that is called Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church will join in the birthday celebration when it is their turn. Perhaps we can also include anniversaries as well as birthdays. It is a way of saying thanks to God. And the monies collected will go to Habitat for Humanity, an organization devoted to building communities.

But I also think that we should take the opportunity to send birthday cards to those who are not here. This would serve as a reminder to them that they are not forgotten and they too are a part of the community of believers.

Too often, many churches say to those who are not here that they are not wanted. Sometimes it is a subtle statement; other times it is a bold and brazen one. It sometimes is stated by not sharing tasks, by stating that a particular task is the property of one person only. Sometimes it is said by having the person take on a task without any help from others.

Many churches today seem to be like the disciples, feeling that certain parts of the church and its work are theirs and theirs alone. We also send out messages that Christianity is limited to only a few people. It is limited but those who choose not to hear the word of the Gospel place the limits. Unfortunately, many Christians today feel that they are the ones who can define the limits.

There are many reasons why people are driven from the church. And in a time when membership is declining, it may be that we need to find ways to bring people back. There isn’t a marketing scheme developed that will do this. But if people want to hear the Gospel, there should be a place where they can hear and see the Gospel in action.

If a church is to have a vision of the future, it must see the future through the present. In the words of James, whom will they call if they are sick? For some the answer that James gives means the elderly of the church, those advanced in years. But the Greek term for elders also means those holding positions of authority in the community or in the local congregation and, since our particular congregation has adopted the council as a whole concept, that would mean everyone. The final verses of today’s reading are the final verses of James’ letter to the congregation; they are reminded that what the congregation does will be the final determination of whether or not someone is saved.

If the congregation does nothing to help one person who is lost, then that person is lost. But if the congregation works together to help bring that person back, then the soul is saved.

It is the question that perplexes mankind to this day. In a community where the barber cuts everyone’s hair, who cuts the barber’s hair? In a community where there are believers, who will watch out for the believers if they do not watch out for the lost, the sick, and the troubled?

What Can We Do?

This is the message that I gave on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 1 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.


Recent events, both that pertained to politics and those that pertained to crime, got to me thinking about the role of church into day’s society. Why is that politicians think and we, as voters, encourage them to think that laws and regulations are the answer to our problems. It was interesting to read on Thursday that parents were telling Congress to stay out of the movie business and let them, the parents decide what is right for their kids.

But how can they, the parents or their children, know what is right? Where is the church and what is its role in all of this?

The church today is in an interesting position in today’s society. It must cry out against the evils of society, against that which is wrong, but if all that is done is to preach “hell, fire, and damnation” then nothing will get done. And of course, when you are loud in condemnation, you have to be very careful that what you do is correct as well. As Jesus point out to all those who would stone the woman accused of adultery, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

And we have also, as a society, grown weary of those who criticize as a matter of course. It is quite easy to criticize but without an alternative, the criticism is mute. Many people feel that churches in today’s society are quick to condemn but not as quick to provide help. And while this may seem to be unique to our time and place, it is not.

It was the very lack of alternatives that led John Wesley to begin the Methodist Revival. And we are here today as a legacy to that movement, because we also feel that the church can do something about the problems that befall society.

What can we do? One of the reasons that you got that letter from me this week, or will soon get, is to find out what we can do. I thought after reading the Old Testament reading that perhaps I should have found what Mordecai wrote in his letters to the Jewish community in Persia, for his concerns are our concerns.

Just as that community in Persia took care of its own, so to must we wonder what it is that we can do here in Walker Valley. As a church and as a community, we need to think about the four parts of the membership covenant, those four things that we said we would do when became United Methodists — our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.

James wrote about the power of prayer. We recognize that prayer has power by the number of times we pray, both formally and informally, in the service on Sunday. We have a prayer chain that is remarkably efficient.

Now, if you are not a part of that prayer chain, can I ask why? For though there is power in those who are called, how much more power would it have if you were a part of it. Not only does you not being a part of the prayer chain dilute its power, but it takes away your presence as well.

As we go to Charge Conference and we prepare the reports, make sure that Virginia Murray has your name and number so that you can be included on the chain for 2001.

Your presence can be in two forms, as individuals and in groups. As I said, if your name is not on the prayer chain, you are missed. And if you haven’t been here through the summer, as I wrote, you were missed. Many times, I would be asked where someone was during the summer. And when I knew, I said. But if I didn’t know and knew that I could find out, I did so. But I also encouraged the questioner to call the missing person and let them know that we, as the church, miss them.

Concern for the community should be the hallmark of any church. Now there are those who say that it is the pastor’s job to make such calls and when it is needed, I will make them. But studies have shown that churches are more alive when the congregation is involved. And the very nature of my position makes it not always practical for me to make these calls. That is another reason why it is important for the congregation to be involved.

Perhaps more people don’t make the calls to the missing members of the church because they are not sure what it is that they should say or if the call is going to be received properly. This fear may very well be the type of millstone tied around our neck, as Jesus talked about in the Gospel reading for today. And this fear is multiplied when the thought of failure creeps in.

But to not do something is perhaps as much a failure as trying and coming up short. In his notes to the pastors concerning Charge Conference, Dennis Winkleblack asked each report given to identify one failure during the year. What he wants to see is which churches are trying things. Any organization that does not try things is not likely to go beyond where they are at that moment. For if you don’t try, nothing can happen.

Presence as a group can take on many forms. The Kentucky Annual Conference has adopted a model for church growth that I, along with many of the pastors in eastern Kentucky, happen to disagree with. It is a model that will work in metropolitan areas but is not practical for rural areas such as eastern Kentucky. In fact, in that model, one could not have six United Methodist Churches in Letcher County. But there are six churches within 25 miles of each other, each unique but separated from the others by the mountains and valleys of the region.

But the one thing that was in the model that would work there and that would work here in Walker Valley is support for small groups. If a group of individuals wish to start a small group ministry, no matter what it is, all they have to do identify the people and move forward with the idea.

Not everyone in the church has to be involved and not everyone is expected to attend. And it should be pointed out that the minister is not directly involved with these groups. I am not coping out of my responsibilities but if the activity were to take place here in Walker Valley at 7 pm and the only way that it will work is for me to be here, then it will fail. With my present situation, at 7 pm on most evenings, I am just leaving the Cold Spring train station and it is wouldn’t be until 8 pm that I would get here.

Making the assumption that the event will not work unless I am here, while flattering to my abilities as a leader, is a faulty assumption. Yes, if I can get here, I will. But the success of any group only requires my support as well as the support of everyone else in the church. In the Gospel reading for today, the disciples are upset because someone else is doing what they have come to regard as their own. Jesus pointed out that the ministry of one, done in His name, is the ministry of all.

Jesus built a team and He never expected one person to do all of the work. When we formally adopt our budget at charge conference, you will have the opportunity to make a pledge. This is a pledge not just of money but time and talents as well. That is what the letter is about.

Yes, what you can financially give will determine if we can meet our financial goals for the coming years. At the beginning of this year, I asked that we make it our goal to set aside at least 10% of our offering to pay our apportionments. Through your faithful giving, we will pay our apportionments in full by the end of this month.

But what talents do you have? If no one knows what your talents are then they cannot be used. Jesus spoke of the difference between hiding a light under a basket and placing it on the mountain where everyone can see it. The same is true about your talents. If you can do something, if you can help in some way, then you need to let people know that. And if you know of someone who has a skill that can be used but you fail to take advantage, what good is that talent?

John Wesley saw a church that didn’t care about the society it was a part of. He saw people who chose to ignore the problems of others because they thought if they did, they would lose everything that they worked for. John Wesley’s response was that it was the church’s problem; that if the church did nothing, then those who sought to protect their own well being would lose it.

Walker Valley United Methodist Church is more than a building along the side of Highway 52. But if we are to be a presence in this community, if we are to help people find their way, we cannot ask ourselves “What can we do?” Rather, we have to ask what it is that we can do.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

I am preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.

Early in my lay preaching career, one of my cousins came to hear me preach. This was something special because this cousin, besides being the patriarch of our extended family, was also a Lutheran minister. Since I was just starting my lay speaking career, I wanted very much to hear his thoughts. Only after I began this journey that brings me here today did I found out that I am the fourteenth minister in the Schüessler family (my family through my paternal grandmother), a heritage that goes back to Martin Luther and Germany in the 16th Century.

After the service was over, we discussed a variety of things pertaining to family and preaching matters. Regarding the latter, my cousin thought my sermon was about the right length but he didn’t think that I should have said that Jesus was a revolutionary.

Those words are not in the printed sermon that I used that day but they fit into what I was saying that Sunday. What I know today is I said that Jesus was a revolutionary because I feel that much of what Jesus did in his ministry was of a revolutionary nature. I still think that is true today.

I have to smile when I think of that early conversation so many years ago. One year later, at our family reunion, my cousin spoke of Jesus as a revolutionary; that very thought he had cautioned me against using. When I mentioned this to him, he could only respond that people can change when it comes to matters of Jesus.

Why is it that I would say and think of Jesus as a revolutionary? When we think of revolutionaries, it is often in terms of armed rebels or groups of people storming the fortress. Loud protests and confrontations are often the hallmarks of revolutionaries for they want to make their statement known. Jesus was never one to make loud protests nor did He think in terms of storming the fortress or holding a protest rally. I doubt that Jesus ever raised his fist in the power salute that was the marker of 60’s protests.

But Jesus was a revolutionary, albeit a quiet one. As noted in the Gospel reading for today (1), in response to the disciples’ discussion of power and placement in the coming Kingdom, He simply put a young child in his lap. With that act, Jesus challenged the very assumptions upon which the society of that time was based.

Jesus made no comments about the justification for the disciples’ conversation but He pointed out that greatness and power in the new Kingdom will only come from being a servant of the people. This was a new way of thinking and not the way that the disciples were used to thinking.

This new way of thinking upset the apple cart of society. It brought into question the manner in which we are to live in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry, Jesus counseled His disciples to live simply and without hypocrisy. He told them to trust God for their care and security rather than rely on the accumulation of possessions. Throughout His ministry, Jesus presented examples that revealed God’s will for us is completely different from our own inclinations and social training.

The Kingdom that Jesus talks of is a radical reversal for us. Everything that Jesus said and did presented an alternative to the normal ways of society. Money was and is the measure of respect; power is the path to success; competition is the character of many of our relationships; violence is regularly sanctioned by our culture as the final means for conflict resolution.

Yet, Jesus advised us to “be anxious for nothing”. He offered a way of life that is and was contrary to what we are accustomed. He overturned our assumptions of what is normal, reasonable, and responsible. Jesus was and is a revolutionary. Jesus upset the apple cart.

From the very early days of the church, it was clear that Christians saw the world in a different light and with a new way of thinking. Christians recognized that their notions of wisdom were in competition with other notions of wisdom. James’ discussion of wisdom in today’s Epistle reading (2) points out that our lives are different.

While there is nothing wrong with our desires for a better life in this world, James writes that we need to reorder our thinking about what we desire, the importance that we place on our desires and the motives that we have for pursuing them. It is a new way of thinking brought about by a new wisdom that can only be found in the Christ.

The Old Testament reading for today (3) points that out as well. The Book of Proverbs begins by outlining the goals for wisdom in general terms and, with the reading for today, concludes by giving a specific case. It is a case where the individual, a woman, has achieved her status by hard work, skill, and a fear of the Lord. Her wisdom comes from understanding of God. I think that it is important that we understand that this woman was independent and capable of making decisions on her own; in that regard, this reading from Proverbs offers an interesting commentary on the society of the time, when women were highly restricted in what they could do. The power and accomplishments of this woman come not from society, which would have sought to restrict her, but rather from what she has gained from God.

What comes about from the Scriptures today is that we see our lives in a different way. When we speak of the freedom that is offered through the Gospel, we have to understand what we have gained in our freedom. Through Jesus we are freed from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity that has imprisoned us. But we have to be aware that while we are free, it is a freedom that requires that we participate in His mission in this world. We find greatness in our freedom but it is because we are willing to be a servant to all. We are now free to meet the needs of society’s outcasts, the hopeless, and the helpless; we are able to deal with the smallness of vision that comes in today’s society.

But this freedom does not come easily. Do we not see the resistance that comes when we ask people to think of things in a new way? Do we not know the panic that sets in when a new way of thinking is presented? From the very moment that he started His ministry, there were those who were critical and unbelieving. From the moment that the impact of His words were understood, the chief priests and scribes, the holders of wealth and power, plotted against Jesus, mocked Him, and sought to destroy Him. Jesus’ teachings and behavior created conflict with the ruling authorities wherever He went. The Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming undermined their whole system. (4)

When I was a college sophomore, I was at a point of crisis. I saw a future of chaos and despair, both in my own life and in the world around me. I was asking how it was that there could be a God that would allow death and destruction. How was I to profit from my life if it seemed there would be no world in which to peacefully live? I did not get all the answers back then but I was shown that through Jesus, I could make a difference in what the future might bring. It wasn’t just that I was saved through my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; it was that I had a responsibility to work for Christ in this world to bring the Gospel message to fruition. If we are not willing to show Christ at work in our lives, then we practice a false evangelism, a religion that does not meet Christ’s demands. (5)

We cannot meet Christ’s demands if we are insensitive to the world around us, if we exclude people from the church and our church community. Some ten years later, while in the midst of a more personal crisis, I found myself in another Christian Community. This was a megachurch before megachurch was a popular term in church growth; it was a program-oriented church before churches saw programs as the way of growth; it was a church with a television ministry before there was cable TV.

It was one of the larger churches in town and it could offer everyone who came to church something in line with their interests and desires. The broadcast of the Sunday morning services reached out to a large portion of the surrounding metropolitan area.

And while I initially thought I had found what I needed at that time, I quickly came to realize that my unemployment status and slightly worn clothing did not fit into the accepted pattern of life in that church. For a long time, I could not figure out why this church started its Sunday morning services (which were televised live) by taking the offering. But one Sunday, when I was at home, I was able to turn on the television and my question was answered. By having the offering at the beginning of the service, it could be deleted from what the television viewers saw. Clearly, this church wanted to market its message without scaring away people with a request for money.

But when the church decided to spend several million dollars on its TV ministry because the other “megachurch” in town had decided to increase its television ministry, I found myself looking again for a new church. I had to seriously question how any church could spend money on marketing tools when there were people in that town without food and shelter. Does the Gospel command us to take care of those who are less fortunate than us? Is not Jesus’ message about taking care of and respecting the people around us?

The early Christian church was known by its particular pattern of life. The faith of the early Christians produced a discernible lifestyle, a process of growth visible to all. It was a lifestyle based on Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Christians were known to be a caring, sharing, and open community, sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed were central to their reputation. Their refusals to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, and to bow down before imperial deities were also a matter of public knowledge. Yet, how are our churches, our Christian communities viewed today?

I have been involved in the turn-around of four churches in the past twenty years. Each church, at the time that I entered the picture, was either on a downward spiral to death and closure or was at the bottom waiting to see would happen next. I do not and will not claim that anything I did changed the outcomes of each church. But I would hope that I was part of the group that sought to reverse the fortunes of each church.

All of these churches were really too small to think in terms of programs but they were not too small to think about communities. In the first church, this was done by making new Sunday school classes. As new members came into the church, they would find themselves in one of the current classes but when there were ten or so new members, they would form a new class. The common bond between the people was that they were new members of the church. It gave a sense of purpose for each group as they were part of the church and part of something growing.

In the next church, growth was hampered by location and finances. But a new location could not be considered until the finances were stabilized. The year that I joined, his particular church had not paid its apportionments in six months. It was said that administrative council meetings were angry, derisive, and confrontational as the church leaders decided the priority of the bills that needed to be paid.

I joined this church two months after a new pastor had been appointed. One of his first decisions was that ten percent of the church’s Sunday offering would go to the payment of the apportionments. Now, you may disagree with this statement; I know that the payment of apportionments is one area where there is a large disagreement in the church. But when has it not been? How many times did Paul mention the need for the churches that he dealt with to help the other churches in the Middle East?

I also know that any monies paid to our own United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are given out dollar for dollar. The reason for that is UMCOR has no overhead; the overhead is carried through a portion of our apportionments. To not pay or limit payment of our apportionments is to limit the ability of UMCOR to accomplish its mission.

Apportionments are one of the ways in which we are connected to the other churches in the United Methodist community. While it may be that there are more equitable ways of determining a church’s apportionment, the decision of a church to withhold or not pay its apportionment is a decision to withdraw from the community. A church which finds itself outside the community will be very much like an individual struggling to find their way in this world. The consequences of being outside the community, especially when one makes it themselves, can be very disconcerting. Consider, for the moment, the story of the prodigal son.

The prodigal son chose to go it alone in the world, feeling it was possible to accomplish whatever he wanted. But in the end, he found himself cast off, discarded and alone. It was then that he realized that being a part of the community was a necessary part of his life. I think those churches who cut themselves off from the community of believers find themselves in the same situation.

This decision in the second church to tithe was not initially well-accepted but the decision was implemented and by the end of that year, the apportionments for that year had been paid in full. I encouraged the next two churches that I was associated with to adopt the same approach. That third church did so and was able to pay its apportionments in full and then began paying the next year’s apportionments in advance. This church was able to make the turn-around and move upward and onward.

The fourth church could not make the turn around. It was not willing to tithe its offering to meet the needs of the apportionment and it saw its events and programs as fund-raisers and not people events. People who came to the events never knew that there was a church sponsoring the event and they never saw the church as what it was. This church was unwilling to take on mission work for fear that success in mission work would result in an increase in apportionments. This church, I am afraid, is going to die within in the next two years. Its unwillingness to see life outside its own walls prevents it from growing.

If you will, the success of the three other churches was not in its abilities to start new Sunday school classes or meet its financial obligations. The success came from a focus on the people of the church as a community and of the church itself being a part of the community. The first church made the new members part of the community and that helped the community to grow; the other two churches saw their community as part of a bigger community. Now some might say that by giving to God through the apportionments, God was returning to them the riches of the kingdom. While this may be a popular theology today, I don’t think that is the case. The focus was no longer on the finances of the church but on the mission of the church. By refocusing the vision of the church, it became possible to see what Jesus was saying that day in Galilee.

Too many times we see greatness in terms of power and wealth. We see churches in the same way; we do not see churches that welcome the children of God in the same terms. Too many churches are better known for their exclusion of the children of God than they are for the welcome they give to God’s children. James reminds us that our desire for greatness can blind us to the need for a new wisdom that will bring about what we seek. Our desire for greatness without the appropriate wisdom can only lead to failure and disagreement. Disagreement robs us of the ability to resolve our disputes peaceably. And if we are fighting within, we cannot welcome others and we cannot welcome God into our lives. (6)

Jesus changed the way society worked; He upset the apple cart. We are not asked to pick up the apples and restore society to the way it was; we are asked to pick up the apples and begin a new society. It is not an easy process and we are likely to fail more times that we succeed as we try to be faithful disciples. But it is a process that we must try. Now ordinarily I would close by asking those who have not accepted Christ to open their hearts and let Him into their lives; I would then ask those who have accepted Christ into their hearts to open their hearts again to the Holy Spirit and let their lives be empowered.

But today, I am changing my normal closing. The world in which we live is a world of fear; it is a world where countless people are without hope or the promise of a better life. It is a world that builds walls and excludes people. It is a society in which power and greatness are accomplished by oppression and selfishness. It is a world of individuals without community. To build a community where no one is turned away requires that the apple cart be upset; to build a community where walls are torn down requires a new way of thinking. It is a world that comes through answering the call to come to Christ.

So, instead of my asking you to open your hearts to Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, I am asking that you go out into this world and make the invitation to someone else. Invite someone you know to be a part of this community of God; invite someone you know to accept Christ into their lives. It will be hard to do this, I know; but in the end the community of Christ will be that much bigger and that much better. And maybe we won’t have to upset the apple cart too many more times.

(1) Mark 9: 30 – 37

(2) James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8a

(3) Proverbs 31: 10 – 31

(4) Adapted from “The Call” in The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis

(5) Adapted from Faith in the Secular World by Colin Williamson

(6) Adapted from “Wisdom Works” by Stephen Fowl, Christian Century, September 19, 2006