“Who is your God today?”


This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church for this coming Sunday, September 16, 2018 (17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B)

To be honest, writing this back page was a bit of a struggle.  How does one answer the question when someone asks you, “who is your God?”

There are many who say that their God is the one true God, but their actions tell us that they worship other gods first.

The noted theologian Henri Nouwen stated,  “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity.”

Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah and not another individual seeking political and earthly power.  It just took him a bit longer to understand what all that meant but, in the end, he would come to understand what he had been called to do.

It takes every bit of our knowledge and experience, our wisdom, to hear the soft words of Jesus amidst the harsh and false words of the world and this society we live in.

But, in Christ we find the truth and know, in the truest sense, that it will set us free.                    ~~Tony Mitchell

The Needs of the Many


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.

I encourage you, the gentle reader, to read Allan Bevere’s thoughts in “On Why The Church In America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”, “Are We Being Too Clever By Half?”, and “Political Visions and Illusions: Preface”. In those thoughts and the following, we have the possibility of a new dialogue.

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If I were to ask him, Mr. Spock would reply that it was a logical assumption to say that the needs of the many outweigh the wants and desires of the few. I am aware that that is not the basic tenet of Vulcan philosophy but it is the phrase that came to mind as I was thinking about the Scriptures for this week and what is transpiring throughout this country.

The actual line is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and come from one of the final scenes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where, in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, Spock has sacrificed his life.

But someone, in response to a question asked in the vastness of the Internet, replied that the originator of the phrase was not Spock (or the writer who wrote the phrase) but rather Caiaphas, the High Priest, who said,

Then one of them—it was Caiaphas, the designated Chief Priest that year—spoke up, “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” He didn’t say this of his own accord, but as Chief Priest that year he unwittingly prophesied that Jesus was about to die sacrificially for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that all God’s exile-scattered children might be gathered together into one people. (John 11: 49 – 52 – The Message)

Whether or not, we are quoting Spock or adapting something that Caiaphas said so many years ago, it seems to me that our discussion these days is not about the many but the few and we have put the wants and desires of the few over the needs of the many.

Let me first state that I am not arguing for a government-run or private enterprise form of health care. That debate has taken on the nature of “what I want and what I should have”, not “what does everyone need.” And as George Barna pointed out in his recent editorial, “Jesus’ Health Care Plan”, the people of America have taken on the attitude that each one of us should have certain government services but that someone else should pay for them.

His survey data points out that two-thirds of the adults in this country look to the government to solve the problems related to poverty (include health care deficiencies) but only one out of very five adults believe that they should be involved in the process and a mere 1 out of 25 assign that task to non-profit organizations and another 1 out of 25 assign the task to the church. In other words, we may pray about it but we do very little to make sure that the prayers are put into action.

Secondly, we want it done in such a way that it does not involve us, does not cost anything, and does not hinder our lifestyle. Barna writes, “It’s not my fault and it’s not my job, so let the paid professionals deal with it.” I can almost hear Bart Simpson and his plea for leniency, “I didn’t do it, no one saw me do it, there’s no way you can prove anything.”

And yet, when someone does something and comes to us for help, we are like the disciples in the Gospel reading for today, angry that someone usurped what they felt was theirs and theirs alone. We willingly and quickly proclaim that we are one nation under God and we will fight anyone who would suggest anything else. Yet are more a collection of individuals living in communities and we do not want others intruding in our community.

We see any suggestion that we can be one community as somehow a usurpation of our individual self-identity. But we were never expected to discard our own identity in becoming this country and we are not expected to cast aside our uniqueness when we enter God’s Kingdom. God’s kingdom is for all, independent of race, color, creed, or lifestyle; yet our own notions of Christianity make such things (race, color, creed or lifestyle) the basis for entering God’s kingdom.

The readings from the Old Testament for today and for the next three weeks are part of what has been called the “wisdom” literature of the Bible. It offers a different insight as to the path we walk. With these selections, we are given an alternative way to see the world around us and the path we may walk. This literature offers us two paths, the path of society and the path of God.

The book of Esther is a very interesting book to read; for it is the only book in the Bible in which there is no mention of God at all.

On the one hand, the author of this book may have wanted to explain the meaning of the Jewish celebration of Purim. This celebration reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believers, even when the believers are far away. And for the believers far away from Israel, such as those in exile in Persia, to be far away from God was to be cut off from God.

But the absence of God or even God’s name may have also been a way for the author to express God’s distance. But, at the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection. In the end, the people are saved because it is clear that desires of the one cannot outweigh the needs of the many. And it was not simply the Jewish community in Persia acting against the intentions of a government but the community and the government against the intentions of one whose only goal was power for himself.

The community of believers may take many forms. We know that members of the early church were not all identical in heritage, economic status, or identity. Yet, they all believed in Christ. They were a community of believers and together they worked for the betterment of the community.

But today, we proclaim that anyone who is not a part of our own self-proclaimed community is somehow against us and working against us, even if their own beliefs mirror our own. If nothing else, the discussions that have ripped this nation apart should show us that we have no coherent definition for “church”, “state”, “nation”, or “society”. We are much more willing to proclaim that ours is a society where we are free to believe, free to choose, and free to do our own thing. And we argue that someone else should pay for these freedoms.

But the essence of the Bible, from the very days of Genesis to the visions of John the Seer, spoke of a community of people united in one vision and one belief, of a people working together for the good of all people. When I read what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I cannot help but think of the words that I hear spoken in today’s society. They are words that put stumbling blocks in front of those in need; they are words of anger and hatred, not love and compassion. They are words that belittle and humiliate. They are designed to build up walls, not tear them down.

How can we enact the words we read in James, of praying for those who suffer or celebrating the successes of others if we are not a community of believers? How can we sing songs of praises when we speak words of hatred and exclusion? And how can we pray for one another when we reject God’s children from our own community?

There is a great challenge before us today. It is not to say that my way or your way is the right way; it is not to argue that only one of us knows the way to and into God’s Kingdom. It is not to say that one is not welcome in our community when Jesus Himself welcomed all who sought Him into His. It is to say that we who believe must open up the community and bring the true message of the Gospel into play. Yes, we may disagree with how this will be accomplished; that is the nature of our being. We are not asked to lose our individual identity in Christ when we proclaim Him as our Savior; on the contrary, we gain a new identity.

If we treat the least of those among us with disrespect, how can we expect to be treated when we stand before the gates of heaven? If we put the wants and desires of the one before the needs of the many, how shall we answer when we are asked that final and ultimate question?

Playing By The Rules


This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

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On October 20, 1983, an event occurred in Southhaven, MS that was little noticed then and probably did nothing to change the course of events in the world. But it mattered to a few people then and it is worth noting today. At the start of the Thursday evening session of the Southhaven Football Association, the announcer read off the names of the game officials for that night.

“The officials for tonight’s games,” the announcer proclaimed, “are referee, Bob Mitchell; head linesman, Tim Mitchell; clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2, Tony Mitchell; field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2, Terry Mitchell.” On that night, and for the only time in our respective careers as football officials, my two brothers and I worked a game with our father. Now, the three of us had done games with our father individually but it was the first and, as it turns out, the only time we ever were a game crew. It was one of those things that we knew was significant but was probably barely noticed by those attending the games that night.

And as several officials have reminded me, that is the way that it should be. Most officials will tell you that a well-officiated game is one in which the officials are not even noticed. You will note that when people do complain about the officiating, it is because a particular call went against the team they were rooting for. And I have also noticed that the main reason that people complain about the calls made by officials is because they, the viewers of the game, do not understand the rules or use rules that are outdated or inappropriate for the level of play. In fact, it has been said that the most common call by an official at an elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!” The problem is that most adults who work with the players at the elementary level don’t understand the rules and only remember the rules that were in force when they played. And they want to try things with their elementary age players that they see seasoned professionals do on Sunday afternoon.

I enjoyed being a football official and most of the time it was fun. I saw plays in games at the elementary and junior high level that most people watching televised games would never see. By working various games at the elementary, junior high, and high school level I was getting ready to move up to the college level. And I must admit that doing college games would have been really a great way to spend a fall afternoon. But then I hurt my knee and my career was over.

Still, the role of a football official, no matter what the level, is not to have fun but to insure that the game is played safely and according to the rules. And no matter what others might think, the rules are there to protect the players, not hamper the game.

The thing about rules is that they are meant to help or protect, not limit or prevent. The Pharisees are raising the issue of divorce in today’s Gospel reading. They are seeking to trap Jesus into contradicting what Moses said or to offend Herod Antipas as John the Baptist had done. They wanted to make sure that his response would justify their view of the world that men had rights that women could not have.

Jesus indicates that divorce was a concession to the hardness of one’s heart and immediately turns the argument of marriage to God’s original intentions. Rather than justify the views of the Pharisees, which put the man above the woman in marriage and society, Jesus forces men and women to bear equal responsibility in the case of divorce and remarriage. God’s design was that men and women would be equal in value and worth, even if they had different roles in the overall design.

This reading is the basis for most Christian churches’ teachings about divorce and is based on the assumption that Jesus was speaking about individual men and women. But if we view this passage from the aspect of gender rather than from that of individuals, we see that Jesus was looking at the full equality of men and women. This equality is so profound that “no one” has the power to separate them, much less make one of them less than the other.

Because, with both persons made in God’s image and as one flesh, they will have equal rights and bear equal responsibility for their actions and decisions. In this way, both are full heirs to the gifts that God bestowed upon them; both are “a little lower than God,” and crowned with “glory and honor” as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 8:5. Finally, both are equal in their rights and responsibilities as co-creators with God. (Adapted from “Living the Word” – Reflections on the revised common lectionary, Cycle B by Michaela Bruzzese)

What the writer of Hebrews is saying is that our chance, if there ever was such a chance, was lost when we allowed sin to control our lives. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the rights and responsibilities that we were given with the Creation of the world, as depicted in the early chapters of Genesis. We were given control through Adam and Eve of all of God’s creation, but that control was delayed because of sin. But, in verse 9 of today’s reading, we read “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2: 9)  This means that humanity regains through Christ what Adam and Eve lost, control over God’s creation.

But we have to remember that in creation, we are all created equals. Nothing in the creation story gives us dominion or control over others in society. Yet, society is quick to forget this. The problem that we have is that we don’t want all people to be equal. We want to be able to say to someone that we are better than they are. We want to be able to say to someone that we have the right, by whatever reason it was granted, to tell someone what they can or cannot do.

One point that Jesus constantly stressed was the equality of everyone in God’s eyes. Everything that Jesus did questioned the rules of society. The Pharisees had a view of marriage that did not fit the view of equality that God intended it to have. Society had rules about children that would have kept them away from Jesus; yet Jesus commanded His disciples to let the children come to Him.

It is our nature to have rules in our lives; the problem is that we try to structure the rules so they favor a particular viewpoint. We have a hard time with life when there are conflicts between what we know is right and what the rules state. This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God.

Jesus through his actions questioned the rules of society. In the verses following the Gospel reading, which we will hear next week, Jesus points out that the Ten Commandments lay out the rules for the fair and ethical treatment of people.

The book of Job is about the relationship between man and God. It also brings to question how can the justice of an almighty God be defended in the face of evil, especially human suffering and even more in terms of the suffering of innocents.

In this regard, there are three possible assumptions. First, God is not almighty; second, God is not just; and third, man may just be innocent. But, in Israel, there was no doubt that God was almighty; there was no doubt that God was just; and thirdly, no human was ever wholly innocent in God’s sight. These latter three assumptions are fundamental to the theology of Job and his friends. Simple logic dictates the conclusion that every person’s suffering comes because of his guilt in the eyes of God. Those were the rules of life and there was no way to change them.

The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, offers an example of a subversive wisdom, an alternative to the traditional wisdom of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom states that those who play by the rules will be rewarded, those that do not will suffer. This is the wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs. In that regard, both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of this easy confidence and conventional wisdom. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them. Society demands that we follow the rules, no matter how inequitable or unfair they may be.

In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.

In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.

Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.

We are able to trust in God when we have a first-hand relationship with Him. Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced, that of one who knew God personally. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.

Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit. The only reality our society is certain of is the visible world and our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.

It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.

But, just as Jesus changed how society should view itself, so too does He challenge and change our view of God. No longer is God a lawgiver or judge; rather He becomes our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we have met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it.

We live in a society that still holds to the view of conventional wisdom. Our works and how we live under the law justify our lives. But Jesus showed that God’s grace was freely given to all and not just a select few. This alone removes us from a life from anxious strife and the self-preoccupation that goes with it.

Simply put, a life in Christ sets us free. It removes us from having to play a game by rules so complex that no one can win. It gives us a new set of rules that insures that our lives have victory over sin and death.

So, we must play by the rules. The question is, and will always be, whose rules shall we play by? The rules of society which lead ultimately to death or the rules of God which lead to Eternal Life?


And How Shall You Be Known?


This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 8 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

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There is a saying in the South, “I am an American by birth but a Southern by the Grace of God.” And since I was born in Virginia and spent the major part of my life in Southern states, I guess that saying would apply to me. A Southern mother raised me, I like most Southern food, and I can talk, if it is not obvious, with a Southern drawl. I even understand many of the reasons for the place football has in a way of life that confuses people who have never lived in the South.

But I don’t hold to all the traditions of the South. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that there was equality among men and women and that any attempts to divide people because of their race, their creed, their color, or their sexuality was wrong. I came to this belief in part because of what I learned in school and in no small part because of what I learned in Sunday school and church.

Traditions are fine but sometimes traditions have to be changed. When Jesus put that child in his lap, as we read in the Gospel this morning, he changed traditions. When the people questioned him about the nature of divorce, he challenged their traditional views of the relationship of marriage.

In verses 5 and 6 from the Gospel reading for today, Jesus declares that divorce was a concession to the hardness of the heart but also states the God’s intent was that man and women would be equal in value and worth. The manner of divorce at that time was that it was possible for a man to divorce his wife but that a wife could not do the same.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, sought to change the ways things were viewed, from a strict interpretation of the law to a better understanding of what God intended for people to do.

The Old Testament reading for today and for the next few weeks looks at Job. The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, is an example of subversive wisdom, of alternative wisdom in the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Indeed, both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in Proverbs that if one lives right, all will go well. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them.

In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.

In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.

Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in the God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.

This represents what I have, over the past few weeks, characterized as a first-hand relationship with God. As one who knew God personally, Jesus invited those who followed him to the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.

Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit; the only reality of which our society is certain is the visible world or our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.

It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.

When you read Hebrews, you read how Jesus is both the chief priest and the principle sacrifice. No longer are sacrifices needed since Jesus Himself was the sacrifice that was given to cover all the sins of the world, both now and in the future. What I personally got out of the passage from Hebrews that we read today is that we are caretakers of the journey that was begun so many years ago in Israel.

The New Testament is about a journey — a journey of discipleship. The meaning of the world disciple is not “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is a following after Jesus, a journeying with Jesus.

Discipleship means, among other things, eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those we tend to exclude. It means being nourished by him and fed by him. That was the point when Jesus fed the five thousand and as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the exodus. If we think of our communion today like those meals in the wilderness, it becomes a powerful symbol of our own journey with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus. Though not the only role of the church, it is the primary role, it is why we are here today, to “gather the folks, tell the stories, break the bread.”

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)

We, Protestants, are an undisciplined people. Therein lies the reason for much dearth of spiritual insight and serious lack of moral power. Revolting, as we did, from the legalistic regimens of the medieval church, we have forgotten almost completely the necessity which inspired these regimens, and the faithful practices which have given to Christendom some of its noblest saints.

Without discipline there would have been no Francis of Assisi, no Bernard of Clairvoux, no Teresa of Avila, no Brother Lawrence, no William Law, no Evelyn Underhill, no Thomas Kelly (no John or Charles Wesley?).

Without discipline there will be no such rich legacy of sainthood bequeathed by us to succeeding generations, or revitalizing the church and redeeming the society of this generation.

The spiritual vitality of the church depends, not on complicated organization or creative administration, important as these are; not on eloquent preaching or adequate theology; valuable as they are; not on unlimited financial resources or cultural maturity; helpful though they be.

What the church primarily needs now, as always, is the presence within it of God-conscious, God-centered soul. Even a few here and there would mean very much to a church confronted by the chaos of this age.

A multitude of men and women, pressing “on to the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” would confront the secularism and skepticism of our time with a challenge not easily laughed off or shunted aside. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day)


Where is God?


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.
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Two comments come to mind when I read the Gospel reading for today. (1) First, why is it that the disciples don’t get the message about how power is shared in God’s kingdom? Second, who are those individuals who are preaching in the name of Jesus that have gotten the disciples so riled up?

Of course, we know that the disciples are still stuck in the “old-school” mentality that power comes to those who follow a leader. And you had to be part of the group in order to be able to pass on the knowledge that you gained. Whoever has caused the disciples to get angry is not part of the immediate group and that is why the disciples see them as a threat. This outsider was also able to do what the disciples had not been able to do; that is, he was healing in the name of Jesus and the disciples hadn’t quite gotten that down yet. (2) So, who are these “outsiders” that threaten to destroy the cohesiveness of the disciples?

None of the notes that I have give any indication as to who this individual was. But we know that on at least one occasion, Jesus sent seventy others out into the world to teach and heal. (3) And they returned, exclaiming how successful they had been in doing what Jesus had asked them to do. It seems likely to me that this individual might have been one of the seventy.

This notion that others can do what we think can only be done in one specific way has great implications for us today. We tend to lock ourselves into one set of thoughts and we are very opposed to anyone who offers an alternative to those thoughts. I receive the newsletter Connections each month and in the October issue, the editor/publisher Barbara Wendland discusses Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir, “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.”

Reverend Taylor has recently left the pastoral ministry and, in her book, she offers a number of reasons why. The primary reason was that she saw members of her church who were pressured to believe official doctrine when their own experiences of God in this world did not match those beliefs. In many cases, those who were leaving the church did so, not only because of the dichotomy between experience and statement, but because they feared sharing their own experiences.

I am more than acutely aware of people who have left the church because they felt that what they believed would be dismissed by others. I am also aware that there are many who have left the church because they see hypocrisy in action on Sunday mornings.

As Reverend Taylor writes, “we proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our own power to maintain equilibrium.”

Is it possible that we can meet God in settings other than formalized church structures on a Sunday morning? The answer, of course, is most emphatically yes! But we have to make sure that the settings that we choose are God’s settings and not what we feel they should be.

Those who have heard me and read what I have written know that I am not terribly fond of much of the new worship styles. It is not that I am stuck in a traditional mode when it comes to worship. If that were the case, then I would be arguing against myself in this message. What I am opposed to is approaches that are more market-driven than God inspired.

I have no problems with alternative forms of worship; having started my ministry through services in the Colorado Rockies while camping out, I cannot be opposed to alternative worship services. But those who proclaim that alternative processes are the only true worship services or the way to bring new people into the church are as closed-minded as those who would proclaim that there is only one true way for worship.

Some would say that the Internet is going to be the new form of worship. I don’t deny that one of the reasons that I post these messages on my blog is to utilize the far-reaching capability of the Internet. There are those who post the entire worship service, as either an audio or video file, on the Internet. But these cannot possibly take the place of actually being in worship and being in contact with others. It strikes me that something is missing from worship if you are not in contact with others.

I am not opposed to using modern music in church. We should have more of it. I will admit that I felt a certain ambivalence when the music of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar” first came out. But now the words and the music of these two pieces ring true in my heart and I wish there were more pieces like them. But it seems to me that more and more of the modern music is nothing more than simple phrases repeated several times. Some people may like these songs because they are simple and unchallenging.

The music and the words themselves are not the issue; it is what we do with the words and the music, it is the meaning that we give to the words and the music. If our words and actions in church have no meaning, then we gain nothing from the time we spent in worship. Others may disagree with me on this point, saying that they do get something from such services. And I would applaud them for that. But let us understand that we can no longer say that only one way of worship is the answer nor can we say that what others are successful doing is the way that we should do it.

We need to seriously examine how we come to find God, not just for a few short hours on Sunday morning but at all times of the week. We need to examine the possibility that we can find God in the most unlikely places as well as in an elaborate sanctuary.

A couple of years ago I drove to Detroit for a job interview. The job had potential but I felt a degree of uncertainty about the process. As I was driving home and leaving the plains of the central United States, I could see the mountains that held the town where I lived. And all I could think of as I saw the hills and mountains before me were the words of David,

I lift up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber;

Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life;

The LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (4)

In the solitude of my car, the decision I had to make was illustrated by God’s handiwork and David’s writings. The decision to go back into the hills and pass on the job in Detroit ultimately led me down the road that I have walked these past few years and has come to the writing of this blog and notes on sermons. Would I have been able to find God and find the answer elsewhere? It is possible but the experiences I have had in other places, such as the plains of Kansas, tell me that there are other ways of finding God and being in communion with Him.

It is interesting that the Old Testament reading for today (5) is from Esther. Esther is a unique book in the Bible from the standpoint that the central figure of the story is a woman. At a time when women were very much marginalized, the deliverance from destruction comes through a woman. The second aspect of this story is the absence of any explicit reference to God, worship, prayer, or sacrifice. To many, this makes the book one with little religious value. But it may be that the author of Esther deliberately did this to highlight the fact that it is God who directs or controls the seemingly insignificant coincidences that make up the plot and issue in deliverance.

When we deliberately make God a central figure in our lives, we risk making Him nothing more than a figurehead. This is what was happening to the Israelite nation when Jesus began His ministry. God was no longer the Father to whom the nation turned but rather an abstract concept that was to be held in reverence. Tradition became more important than understanding who God is and the meaning for God in the people’s lives.

When Jesus rebuked the disciples for not accepting the work of another, He was reminding them (and us) that the community of God is bigger than we think it is. In his writing for today (6), James is reminding us that we are a community and that the community extends beyond what we might think. It is a community in which we should not close the doors to those who seek God in other ways but a community that opens its doors to all who seek God.

October 1st is World Communion Sunday. It is a day when the community of God goes beyond the walls of the church and extends around the world. The readings for today remind us that the community of God exists every day and we should be looking for that community every day. The community of God extends beyond the walls and we should make sure that the walls that we build enclose everyone and not keep others out. We should not be asking “where is God?” but rather we should be saying “welcome to our community for here you shall find Him.”


(1) Mark 9: 38 – 50

(2) Mark 9: 14 – 18, 28

(3) Luke 10: 1 – 12

(4) Psalm 121

(5) Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22

(6) James 5: 13 – 20