“The Rules of Life”

Here is the “back page” for the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, 8 October 2017, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A).

No, I am not talking about the board game of Life, where you moved through life, overcome obstacles and gaining credits until you reached a wonderful ending.  But there are rules by which we live and there are the rules that others seek to impose on us.

As Saul, Paul was determined to do just that, force others to live by a set of imposed rules.  The openness of “The Way” (as the new Christian movement was then called) was anathema to the rigid, rule-driven religion that Saul followed.

But Saul found a new set of rules when his life as a persecutor was interrupted and his new life as Paul began.  Paul understood that the rigidity of rules stifled life, not encouraged it.  It was the initial rigidity of Methodism that caused John Wesley to have an immense sense of failure.  When Wesley accepted the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, the world-changing movement known as the Methodist Revival began.

We can be like the workers of the vineyard, bound and determined to do it our own way, by refusing to accept the Holy Spirit into our lives.  And in doing so, we doom ourselves to failure, even though we are certain we are following the rules.

But a rigid set of rules does not give us the Freedom we seek.  A rigid set of rules only limits us.  But there is that one moment in our life, our Aldersgate or our place on the road to Damascus, where we encounter the Holy Spirit and find our Freedom.

It was this Freedom, that empowerment by the Holy Spirit, that gave the Methodist Revival the ability to change the world.  Our Freedom is found in Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

And that is the one rule of life.

~~ Tony Mitchell


“What Is Your Focus?”

Meditation for 12 October 2014, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 32: 1 – 14; Philippians 4: 1 – 9; Matthew 22: 1 – 14

The challenge in today’s society is no different than it was in yesterday’s society or even in society three thousand years ago. The challenge is and will always be to do what it right and not necessarily what society ask of us.

There are those times when what society asks of us is the right thing to do but only when individuals have stood up and called the people to act in the appropriate manner. For the most part, what society has asked people to do seems to be the logical thing but not necessarily the right thing.

Right now, society seems to be careening and bouncing its way into a world of never-ending wars that will never be decided. Society seems to decided that there will only be one view of the way things are and the existence of two different ideas is the basis for conflict.

I realize that certain ideas, which place the thoughts and values of one individual over those of another and do not allow for a discussion of the differences, are not appropriate. But that only means that we need to be aware of what is happening and prepared to meet the challenge before it gets to the point where violence is the only alternative.

This can be a difficult task. Consider what the Israelites were going through in the Old Testament reading for today. Their journey, guided by a mysterious fire and a strange cloud, had lead them to the base of Mount Sinai and now their leader, Moses, had seemingly disappeared. And there was no tangible evidence of this God they had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and given them bread to eat and water to drink while they wandered in the desert.

It is no wonder that they reverted to old habits and demanded the existence of a physical idol. The golden calf gave them the focus that they needed to survive. I think that is part of the problem in today’s society. We find it easier to focus on something tangible and physical; we have difficulty focusing on the abstract and invisible.

Even Paul warns against focusing on the negative things in life. I don’t think he wants us to ignore them but put them in the proper perspective. The problem today is that too many pastors have opted for a view of life that sees only the good but offers no plan for dealing with the bad part of life.

We have been given a great opportunity (as declared in the parable of the wedding banquet in today’s Gospel reading) but it is only there if our focus is on God. Those who were invited had their focus elsewhere and they missed the invitation. But unless your focus is totally on God then you will probably miss the invitation as well, as noted by the individual who was kicked out because he wasn’t properly dressed.

Now, there are some who will glory in these words. But they might miss the point. We live in this world and we have to work in this world. If we try to make this world God’s world or what we think might be God’s world, we will miss the point. We will have our focus on the rules and the means of enforcing the rules and not on God Himself. But if our focus is on God and what God means to us and we exhibit His love in our work, our words, our deeds and actions, then our focus will be where it needs to be.

So, what is your focus? Is it on society and how society see you or is it on God and what God would have you to do to show His love in this world?


The following was the morning devotional for the New York Conference Board of Laity for Tuesday, October 7, 2014.

Good morning, my name is Tony Mitchell and I am a certified lay servant from the Fishkill United Methodist Church. A copy of this devotional can be found on my blog “Thoughts From The Heart On The Left.”

I choose Hebrews 11: 1 – 31 as the scriptural basis for this morning’s devotional but, for time purposes, not going to read it this morning. But I suggest that when you get the opportunity, you read it one more time. Perhaps, as is often the case, a second reading of a familiar passage provides a new understanding.

This passage begins with the idea that faith is a belief in things unseen and then goes on to list all those incidents where our spiritual ancestors acted on faith.

Now, when Clarence Jordan wrote his Cotton Patch version (which he called a “colloquial translation with a Southern accent), he noted that he saw the Letter to the Hebrews as a convention sermon at an annual conference of early Christians. The delegates may have been so impressed and inspired that they insisted that it be included in the convention minutes.

Jordan wrote as verse 1 of chapter 11, “faith is the turning of dreams into deeds, it is betting your life on unseen realities.” I think of all those listed in this chapter of Hebrews and the trials and difficulties they endured, all based on the proposition that the Kingdom of God and the promises it held were real and not some sort of myth or superstition.

In today’s world, faith is often treated as just that, a myth or superstition. The critic and the cynic will tell you that any belief in God is something that one cannot prove and thus is meaningless in a life that demands proof.

Over the past few weeks and even months, I have felt that my own faith has been tested, perhaps to the point of breaking. But I keep holding on, with my faith sustaining me when nothing else seems to work. And as I look back at history, those 2000 or so years since Jesus began His ministry on the dusty roads of the Galilee, I have to say to the cynic and the critic, if this is all a myth or superstition, why does it still exist? Shouldn’t faith have disappeared a long time ago.

In the end, the proof that faith is real is found when we show God’s love to others, when we show the existence of God in our own lives and help others when they are tested. The proof of God’s love comes when we answer the cries of the people who are hungry, the cries of the people who are sick, the cries of the people who are naked or homeless and the cries of the oppressed. Faith is truly the turning of dreams, those of others into deeds, that which we do.

A Sense of Reward

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 16: 2 -15, Philippians 1: 21 –  30, and Matthew 20: 1 -16.


It was, I believe the explorer Sir George Mallory, who was asked why someone would want to climb Mount Everest. His reply is the classic response for all great challenges, “Because it is there.” President John Kennedy, when laying down the challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade said, “We choose not to go because it is easy, but because it is difficult.” He said so knowing that we had yet to even orbit a man and that the equipment for completing the operation was not even on the drawing boards.

But it is very rare to see such an attitude today. For the most part, any new effort is met with skepticism and reluctance. Any challenge put forth to an individual today is often met with the response “What’s in it for me?” Were there still a sense of adventure in the world today, like there was in the early 60’s, mankind would have a presence on the moon and we would be well on our way to traveling to the planet Mars and perhaps beyond. The International Space Station would be have been completed and done so in a major effort of cooperation and collaboration worthy of its name, rather than piece meal and when ever it is possible.

Yes, there are challenges on this earth that need to be faced and priorities must be made so that those who are without have the basic needs. But when you take away adventure and the reason for going beyond the next curve in the road, you offer no hope to anyone.

The Israelites went out into the desert, not knowing what was before them, only that they were headed for the Promised Land. But the moment they became hungry, they began complaining. “Are we to die in the desert at the hands of the Lord when we could have had our fill at the dinner table in Egypt?” they cried, conveniently forgetting the life of slavery that went with that life.

The workers who worked the full day complained that they should have gotten more because they worked the most, forgetting that payment was made at the discretion of the landowner who paid them and it was the amount they had agreed to receive. You cannot complain when what you get is what you were told you would get.

It is hard to determine the reward that we should get for the work that we do. It has always amazed me to read about John Wesley and the early troubles he encountered in the development of the Methodist movement. We wear the badge of Methodist quite proudly, knowing that it was an epithet of slander and hatred.

Wesley openly opposed those who practiced what he called a lukewarm Christianity. He labored to bring every area of his own life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal, along with that of the other members of the fledgling Methodist revival, provoked ridicule. The name “Methodist” was given to this group because of their methodical devotion to daily rituals and the discipline they imposed on their lives.

Yet, even with a semi-monastic existence and a devotion to good works, each of these Oxford Methodists could claim the receipt of certainty found in God’s love. Their toil and labors, their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, sacrificial good works left them far short of peace and joy promised in the Gospel. Later, Wesley would speak of these times as being in a “spiritual wilderness.”

The meaning that Wesley so desperately sought came only after that momentous night at Aldersgate when he welcomed the presence of the Holy Spirit into his life. It was this Presence which gave both John and Charles Wesley the sense of peace and comfort so often stated in the Gospel. It was the same for Paul; as we read in his letter to the Philippians, it was the presence of Christ in his life that gave the meaning to his (Paul’s) life.

Wesley never sought to create a new church; in fact, he remained a minister in the Church of England all his life. What he sought to do was to bring a sense of purpose to the stated mission of the church, to give meaning to the words of the Gospel. How should we measure the results of Wesley’s work? It can never be said that he understood what he had accomplished, but no less a source than the Cambridge Modern History stated that the most positive influence in eighteenth-century England was “John Wesley and the religious revival to which he gave his name and life.”

But what Wesley sought could not have been accomplished had he not accepted the Holy Spirit into his life that night at Aldersgate. There is no way we can ever seek to gain any rewards if our rewards are tied to earth. Perhaps my favorite Bible passage is Ecclesiastes 3 (“To every thing there is a season”). It speaks of our time under earth; but in chapter 2, the Preacher spoke of the futility of a life spent trying to gain everything there was, as if it would provide the meaning of life. Just as Wesley saw that nothing was possible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, so too did the Preacher point out that life without God was meaningless.

There is nothing wrong with seeking rewards for what we do; it is perhaps only natural. But it always amazes me when I read about some individual who no one knew and everyone ignored who gives a college or university a tremendous amount of money simply because it was the right thing to do. At least one church received the money to build a parsonage because, on one Sunday, the congregation was nice to a stranger passing through. Nothing was said but this stranger was made to feel welcome one particular Sunday. And many years later, a check from the estate was mailed to the church. The reward for simply doing what is right can never be measured in the present time.

Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church is faced with a challenge. If this congregation is to go beyond the present time, there are those who must step up, who must face the challenge without any sense of reward or entitlement. It is not a challenge to do everything by themselves, but rather pick an area of leadership and help the entire congregation move into the future. There are some that will say that it cannot be done and if no one picks up the challenge, that will be the case.

In those days prior to that wondrous encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, John Wesley was near death. Because he saw his method as a failure, because he saw his missionary work in Georgia as a failure, Wesley came back to England prepared to die. Yet, he did not die but rather he surrendered his soul to the Holy Spirit. In turning over his life, he gained that which he sought. He may never have understood the reward that came with his work; such rewards are only measured through the pages of time. But he did gain a sense of peace that he had long sought.

So too is it for us. We may never gain a sense of reward for the work that we do now. But that is not why we do it; we do it so that others may gain the reward of having Christ as a presence in their lives. And that may be the best reward we can ever experience.

The Final Exam

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.


At some point in time when you were in school, there came a day when you had to take a test that you would have just as soon not taken. Maybe it wasn’t the test itself but rather a few questions that you weren’t prepared to answer.

I have a cartoon that I often gave my students at the time of the final exam (see “Final Exam”; added on 23 May 2010). In it a student reads the exam and interprets what he is reading as the first questions.


The student responds, “Name? What name? Name who? Name what?!?! Oh, my name.”

Obviously, this student is well prepared for the exam in question.

Taking tests is something we quickly learn to do, especially when we realize that our success in the course or whatever is causing us to take the exam is dependent on our passing that exam. Some tests we, in fact, want to pass. Many of us can remember the elation we felt, or that our children did, when we or they passed the driver’s test and got our driver’s license.

Of course, not all our exams bring such joy. Need you be reminded about that geometry test you took several years ago?

Testing is what the scriptures today are about. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again testing Moses, Aaron, and in the end, God. As we heard in the reading, the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water and saying how much better life was in the old days back in Egypt. It seems like every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they tested the patience of Moses and the patience of God. First, it was the Egyptian army chasing them; then it was the lack of food; then as we heard in today’s reading, it was the lack of water. But with each crisis, God showed them that they, the Israelites, had nothing to fear. Yet, they seemingly could not trust God and were continually testing him with their demands. No wonder, Moses seemed so frustrated.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is how patient God is. There are times, I am sure, that we think is God is testing us. Surely, there were those Israelites who felt God was testing them on the plains of the wilderness.

But it is we who test God by our pushing him to do more than He plans on doing. We are not privy to His plans and it is presumptions of us to think we can understand it. When we test God, such as the Israelites were doing, or as the Pharisees tried to test Jesus in the New Testament reading, we are trying to redefine our relationship with God in our own terms, a task that is always doomed to fail.

In the New Testament reading, the Pharisees are beginning the campaign of getting Jesus to say that He is the Son of God. If they can do this, they can then have him arrested for blasphemy. But Jesus was well aware of their plans and is not about to play their game. But He does say that He will answer one of their questions if they can answer one of his.

Since the Pharisees are incapable of answering his question, Jesus will not answer their question. My friend and former pastor, John Praetorius, was a lawyer before he was a pastor. He once noted that a good lawyer never asks a question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. It would seem that the Pharisees and scribes didn’t remember that particular piece of knowledge.

The final exam that I refer to in the title of this sermon is a two-part question. Question one is the one that the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about. Who shall get into heaven? It doesn’t matter how much you know or how “good” you have been. What matters is whether or not you will follow Jesus.

The second part of the exam is really interesting. Because without the first part, the second part is meaningless but answering the second part is no guarantee of getting into heaven. But the second part of this exam question is just as important for life here on earth. And more importantly, it has a lot to do with why we are United Methodists. In the second part of this “final” exam, you have to answer a very simple question. Having coming to Christ, what are you going to do then?

What being an United Methodist is all about is something a lot of people don’t understand. It is accepted that no matter how hard we try, we must realize that we are not perfect. But, having coming to Christ, we must do everything we can to improve our life. The order in which this is done is very important because trying to do good works does nothing if we don’t first have Christ in our hearts.

This distinction about what the church is and what the church should do is not a new one but one that we will be hearing about during the political campaigns of the coming year. Some insist that the role of the church is solely to save souls while others say that the church is called to work in order that God’s kingdom comes here to earth. Those who hold to the first view feel that problems of the economy, social strife, and political differences will take care of themselves once individuals know Christ. But those of the second view feel that the problems of economy and society are much greater and cannot be solved simply by individuals and that the church must take a much larger role. For the United Methodist Church and its predecessors, there is truth in both arguments.

Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was to get into heaven. The Lord’s Prayer included petitions for both an earthly kingdom of righteousness and individual forgiving hearts and lives. But Jesus also repeatedly said that God had called him, just as Isaiah had been called, to bring relief to the poor, release to the prisoners, and liberty to the oppressed.

Just as Jesus commissioned his disciples to share the gospels with individuals and baptize them, He also identified his mission on earth with the great reforming prophets such as Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah –

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. (Luke 4: 18)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9: 13)

Wesley, in beginning the Methodist Revival, was concerned not only about bringing people to Christ. After all, his charge to Methodist preachers in America was “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” But he also felt that individuals alone could not meet the needs of society’s poor and oppressed. It was through the early Methodist societies in 1740 that the first job training programs were started. In 1746, Methodists, through Wesley, created a health care facility for the poor and working class in London. Wesley also started what we would call a credit union to help keep people from being thrown into debtor’s prison.

The General Rules that Wesley wrote are very much like what Paul wrote in the Epistle reading for today and elsewhere.

  1. Doing no harm, avoiding evil, especially that which is most generally practiced.
  2. Doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.
  3. Attending upon all the ordinances of God.

There are two questions on one’s final exam. Jesus said to his disciples, he says to us today, “Come, follow me.” This is an easy question to answer and can be done at any time. But if we wait, there is no guarantee that we will get the chance to give any type of answer. It is better to answer that question now, in the affirmative.

The second question comes from God. It is the same question that God asked Isaiah in a time of Israel’s past when it seemed that society had forgotten who God was. Having coming to Christ, what shall you do next? God is asking who can he send to do his work in this world.

The Words We Use

Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 14, 2008.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.  (This has been edited since it was first posted.)


This particular piece started because one of the major Presidential candidates said something and the other major Presidential candidates took offense at what the other guy said. The problem was that if you had heard what the first candidate had said, then you knew what he was talking about and it was nothing for which the second candidate could say meant anything except what it meant. In addition, the second candidate had used the very same analogy about another candidate and nobody said that he was being offensive when he did the very same words.

The problem, for me anyway, isn’t the words that the politicians used but rather the fact that we willingly let them say those words. We willingly let politicians and their surrogates throw mud even though they themselves have proclaimed that they would never engage in such activities. If a parent ever needed an example of “do I as say, not as I do”, snippets of our political process would be great.

We let the politicians get away with “slinging mud” because we have grown accustomed to such words. They use the words that we want them to say. And they often match the words we say and the actions we take. It seems that we get some sort of perverse thrill out of this type of rhetoric because it allows us to get into the mud with them and exhibit “faux” outrage at the opponent for his or her language.

On the other hand, we say that we act in the name of Christ but our actions can hardly be called Christ-like. We call for war when Christ calls for peace; we call for material accumulation when Christ calls for us to give everything away. We admire those who have while ignoring those who have little or nothing. People go hungry and are thrown into modern-day equivalents of debtors’ prison while executive continue to earn and keep multi-million dollar bonuses.

From its beginning some two thousand years ago, the church was outspoken in its defense of the weak and the poor, the forgotten and those cast away. For three hundred years, the church opposed war and the power of the state; but it paid the price for this opposition and its attitude by the Roman persecution. It is a price that the churches of today and the people of the church are unwilling to pay.

For the past 1700 years, the church has sought to be the status quo, the keeper of the present norms, and the defender of the rich and the powerful. Instead of speaking out against war and violence, it has pushed the idea that wars are necessary for the good of the church. Rather than speaking out against greed and material accumulation, the church has fostered and encouraged the attitude that, in the words of Gordon Gekko, “greed is good.”

Too often we act like the manager in the parable that Jesus used to illustrate the act of forgiveness. We are quick to demand repayment and compensation from others while at the same time we are expecting our debts and errors to be quickly forgiven. We expect that outcome because we hold on to a view that somehow, as God’s children, we can expect grace to be given while not giving anything in return. We have transformed the church from what it was and what it could be into a device for our own welfare and well-being.

We have taken the words of the Bible, both of the Old and New Testament, and transformed them from a story about our journey with God into a rulebook by which we can decide who is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who shall be denied entrance.

Paul, in the selection from his letter to the Romans for today, speaks of the differences between individuals when it comes to believing in God. What strikes me about the appropriateness of this selection for today is how we have forgotten those words and how we have sought to impose our beliefs and our thoughts on others as the only true means of belief.

Now, some will take offense with this concept because it forces them to think through and about what they are doing. It forces them to see that other points of view are possible. And just as there was resistance to this concept when Paul wrote those words to the Romans, there is still resistance today. There are too many people still unwilling to see the viewpoints of others. They are quick to condemn any view that does not correspond with their own. This reluctance is causing many people to leave the church or to seek other belief systems.

When we refuse to allow others to have their own set of beliefs unless they believe as we do, we are saying that one form of ministry is higher or more sacred than other forms, be it is inside or outside a church. As Paul alludes in his letter, if you are going to do something, then do it with your heart and your mind and your soul. Don’t do it part way but wholly and completely.

The church, be it the denomination or its members, is faced with a challenge today. If we are unwilling to see that others may believe in God or interpret the Word of God in an entirely different way, then we must face the fact that the church that has been so much a part of our lives is going to die. The words that members have used, individually and collectively have done as much and perhaps more harm than good. We see too many people leaving the church for other forms of spirituality; we see too many people who view the words of the church with suspicion and doubt. The church must change what it is doing; it must repent of its past and begin anew. The paradox is that to begin anew we must return to the church’s very beginning (and we will talk about this later).

In the Gospel reading for today, Peter asks Jesus how many times one person should be forgiven and Jesus replies “seventy times seven.” The act of forgiveness as portrayed by Jesus goes beyond the simple act of forgiveness that society often demands and it is a concept that we, like Peter, have difficulty comprehending.

We are told in the Gospel reading for today that we have been given a great opportunity. We have been given the opportunity to cancel our debts and begin anew; to change the direction of our lives. Like the waters rushing over the Egyptian army as the Israelites began their journey to the Promised Land, so too does God’s grace wash over us and give us a new lease on life, a lease that is free from sin and death. But if we speak with the same words that we have in the past, the flood of God’s grace will change and like the Egyptians, we will drown in a sea of sin and death.

But if we speak the words of forgiveness and repentance; if we speak of the Glory of God in our lives; if we speak of our experience with God and Christ, our lives will change. Our future will be decided by the words we use; what shall you say?