What does a Christian do?


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, October 13, 2019, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C). Services start at 10:15 am and, as I wrote last week, “You all come”.

One of the ideas that popped in my head when I read today’s lectionary was the question as to what Christians do?  Jeremiah tells the Israelites in their Babylonian exile that even though they are far from home and under great stress they should continue their normal lives.  It is one way to maintain the connection to their far away homeland.

But what does it mean to continue one’s normal life?  For us today, it would be things like attending church regularly, reading the Bible on a similar regular schedule and taking time for prayer each day.  But is there anything else we can do?

One of the things about faith that John Wesley wrote about was the need to seek perfection.  Lead the life that exemplifies what Jesus taught us two thousand years ago and seek to make each day better than yesterday.  Lead the life that tells those around you that you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

But how do we do that?  When Jesus stood before the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, He said He had come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the oppressed.  He set the guidelines for what Christians should do.

And therein lies the rub.  Our history as Christians tells us that, in the words of the prayer of  confession,  we have not always done what we should have done but done what we should not have done.  In the 1930s, Christians in Germany turned their back on the plight of the Jews.  In the 1960s, Christians in this country sanctioned the repression of blacks who sought the same rights as their white counterparts.  Even today, there are many Christians who sanction the repression of many simply because of the color of their skin, their lack of income, or where they came from.  Despite their claim to be Christian, it is quite clear that their allegiance is to a more political god.

This is more than a theological question.  Can a person support repression and terrorism and still be considered worthy of the name Christian?  Can a denomination which sanctions (quietly or openly) repression of individuals because of the color of their skin, their lack of financial status, or even their gender or sexual identity be worthy of being a Christian denomination?  It leads us back to the beginning question, “What does a Christian do?”          

~~Tony Mitchell

10 Minutes


A Meditation for 18 September 2016, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The meditation is based on Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1; 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7; and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

The prophet Jeremiah cries out that it seems as if God is not to be found anywhere in Zion.  But, by the same token, it would appear that it is the people who are to be blamed for the disappearance of God.  And in that alternative Old Testament reading for this Sunday (Amos 8: 4 – 8), the prophet Amos puts the blame on those who ignore the lesser of society in favor of their own goals.

And then there is Paul telling Timothy that God wants everyone saved, not just a select few but everyone.  And Paul points out that there is only God.  Now, it would be nice if Paul had left the option open on how this was to be done but, in his view, the only way to God is through Jesus Christ.  And I realize that I am in the minority on this point but that in accepting Christ as my Savior I understand what Paul is writing.  But that doesn’t mean that I can make everyone accept that viewpoint and I happen to think that Paul understood that as well.  That’s why he told Timothy that you had to get the word out and explain how it works.  And “explain” is the operative word; not everyone is going to accept the idea and we have to accept that.

Maybe I am wrong but I see something ironic in those words being the first lessons for this week.  Because there are those who would say that their goals and their agendas are the primary goals and agendas of the church and that if you don’t accept what they say as the absolute and positive truth, then you are out.

But these people have made deals much like that of the dishonest manager in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday.  They have made deals that allow them to keep their power and their position, even it goes against what God intended.

The title of this post is blatantly taking from Reverend Jeremy Smith’s recent post, “10 Minutes after Progressives are Exiled from the #UMC”.  Reverend Jeremy outlines some of the things that may occur if conservatives in the Methodist Church are able to accomplish their goals of creating a new orthodox, Wesleyan denomination and a network of churches committed to changing the word through proclamation and ministry.

Now, Reverend Smith points out that 10 minutes after this is accomplished and progressives are forced from the United Methodist Church, the world as they know will come to an end (and that is my interpretation) for many people who have suffered and endured in the limiting environment of their own present denomination will find the voice to break free.

The goals of these conservatives is to maintain the legalistic and perhaps, in their own mind, theological correct order of life.  And their view of the world is a very fixed and complete world.

But I live in a world that seems to be changing and what seemed to have been true years ago is no longer true.  If you are a chemist and you know your chemical history, then you are perhaps vaguely familiar with the phlogiston theory.

This was the first attempt to explain the process of combustion and stated that there was a substance known as phlogiston that was released during the process of combustion.  The discovery of oxygen and the fact that materials gained mass during combustion lead to the demise of this theory.

Now it should be pointed out that even after this theory was discredited, there were some who struggled to make it work.

There are times when I see what happens in the church today in that way.  There are some basic underlying principles that have remained true from the very day that we became conscious and sentient beings but have become clearer each day because we know about what is transpiring around us.  As the philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, noted, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.”  He also stated one “can never step in the same river twice.”

I have spoken and written about how I see the future of the United Methodist Church and I know this:

I cannot leave the United Methodist Church when it was the place where I found a safe and loving environment at times of personal and professional crisis.  I cannot leave the United Methodist Church where there were pastors who saw something in me that I didn’t see and pushed and prodded be to continue on my own journal of faith.  I cannot leave the United Methodist Church when there are those who today to find that environment that love, that safety, that opportunity.  I cannot leave the United Methodist Church but I fear that the United Methodist Church will leave.

Sadly, those who hold on to this static view of life will find themselves left behind.  But those who they would willing exclude will find a new, open and welcoming church.

10 minutes from the now, the world will have changed and there is no one thing you can do to keep that from happening.  The prophets knew this; Paul always encouraged Timothy to keep moving forward.  And the words that Jesus spoke some two thousand years ago pointed out the what we have today are the moments that stimulate creative and allow us to move forward.

The world 10 minutes from now can be a better world if you are willing to make it so.

“Which Road Will You Walk?”


This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, September 21st for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 2, 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7, and Luke 16: 1 – 13; I focused primarily on the passage from Jeremiah but used thoughts from the other two readings as well.

If I were to list my favorite things, as a poem I would use Robert Frost’s poem “Two Roads”. It speaks of two roads diverging and the writer having to make a choice as to which road they will walk down. One road is well traveled while it appears that no one has ever traveled down the other one. How often is this choice the one we have to make, of choosing the road that everyone else is traveling or taking a new path, one that has never been tried.

Sometimes you have to take the road every one travels; if you want to get to Beacon from Newburgh, you almost always have to take the Newburgh-Beacon bridge. But that’s not to say that you can’t go down to Bear Mountain and cross over there; or go up to Marlboro and cross over to Poughkeepsie. But it is so much easier to use the Newburgh-Beacon bridge because it is shorter and more familiar.

How much of our life is like that, where we will take the easier path, the shorter path, the one that everyone else takes? Sometimes, it is the best way to go but often times, just because everyone else does it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the right thing to do.

In preparing these notes, I turned to my prayer guide for some thoughts to help my thinking and writing. I don’t know who James Allen was but in his book, “As A Man Thinketh”, he wrote the following.

The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors; that which it loves, and also that which it fears; it reaches the height of its cherished aspirations; it falls to the level of its unchastened desires, and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own.

Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own fruitage of opportunity and circumstance. Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bad fruit.

The outer world of circumstance shapes itself to the inner world of thought, and both pleasant and unpleasant external conditions are factors which make for the ultimate good of the individual. As the reaper of his own harvest, man learns both by suffering and bliss.

Following the inmost desires, aspirations, thoughts, by which one allows oneself to be dominated (pursuing the will-o’-the-wisps of impure imagining or steadfastly walking the highway of strong and high endeavor), a person at last arrives at their fruition and fulfillment in the outer condition of life.

The laws of growth and adjustment everywhere obtain.

This says to me that we have two choices, one that will lead to the good life and one that will lead elsewhere. Now, this good life is not necessarily that “good” life of the secular road. That’s what leads Jeremiah to cry out over the imminent destruction of his people. They have been chasing the “good” life and now they will reap the penalty.

I go back to something that I have said before but it is always worth repeating, when you come to this place, you leave your baggage behind.

This is a place of renewal, a place to find that one thing that will turn your life around. Last week I spoke of the transition of power that was taking place, of Paul’s retirement (actually, his impending execution) and Timothy taking over the mantle of leadership.

In that portion of the letter that is part of this weekend’s lectionary, Paul continues instructing Timothy on what he is to be doing. Timothy is to continue telling everyone about the Good News, that Jesus Christ came for everyone, not just a few people but for everyone.

He, Timothy, is also to pray for everyone including the leaders of the community so that they make the decisions which will allow each one of us to live the life we are supposed to live.

And that leads me to the other note that I found in my preparation. It is a prayer by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and scholar. It speaks to what we must do, both in prayer and in life. Hear this prayer,

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I am impressed by my own spiritual insights. I probably know more about prayer, meditation, and contemplation than most Christians do. I have read many books about the Christian life, and have even written a few myself. Still, as impressed as I am, I am more impressed by the enormous abyss between my insights and my life.

It seems as if I am standing on one side of a huge canyon and see how I should grow toward you, live in your presence and serve you, but cannot reach the other side of the canyon where you are. I can speak and write, preach and argue about the beauty and goodness of the life I see on the other side, but how, O Lord, can I get there? Sometimes I even have the painful feeling that the closer the vision, the more aware I am of the depth of the canyon.

Am I doomed to die on the wrong side of the abyss? Am I destined to excite others to reach the promised land while remaining unable to enter there myself? Sometimes I feel imprisoned by by own insights and “spiritual competence.” You alone, Lord, can reach out to me and save me. You alone.

I can only keep trying to be faithful, even though I feel faithless most of the time. What else can I do but keep praying to you, even when I feel dark; to keep writing about you, even when I feel numb; to keep speaking in your name, even when I feel alone. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.

Now, I will be honest. Those words perhaps mean more to me and my own struggle in the faith than they may have meant for you. But if one pauses and thinks about one’s own life, those words, perhaps in a slightly different tone, are words that you might have spoken.

What if you were one of the those whom Jeremiah was crying out about? How would you feel? Would you not wonder where your hope, your salvation might be?

There are a number of instances where Jesus alludes to the abyss, the distance between each one of us and Him. And it is clear that we cannot shrink that distance, no matter how hard we try. But Jesus has the ability to bridge that gap and bring to us that which we seek, if we just reach out to Him.

In those times when we feel alone, or helpless, or powerless, we know that Jesus will be there. We also know that He will be there in the times of plenty and bounty, times when we are apt to ignore Him and think that we did it ourselves.

Each person comes to this point on their own and they must make the decision about what comes next on their own. But each of us, having in someway been there, can help find that path, help each person find Christ in a world that often doesn’t want us to find Him.

We come to a crossroads in life and we must decide which path to take. That is the call we make this morning, “which road will you walk?”

What Is Going to Happen?


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3, 6 – 15; 1 Timothy 6: 6 – 19; and Luke 16: 19 – 31.

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I will tell you up front that there is a great deal of politics in this particular piece. The more I hear from the political circus that so dominates our lives today, the more I would just as soon go somewhere up into the hills and hide. I mean there is some precedent for that. The First Battle of Bull Run (as you Yankees called it) was fought on Wilmer McLean’s farm just outside Manassas, Virginia. For a number of reasons, including a desire to keep his family safe, McLean moved to Appomattox. And those that remember their history know that it was at his house that General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, thus ending the Civil War (or depending on your history books, the “War of the Rebellion”). So, maybe that’s not a good idea. (I have heard a similar story about someone who moved from France to Guadalcanal but can’t find a reference to it.)

But then again, maybe that’s what I should do. After all, consider what Jeremiah did. He bought some land in anticipation of the restoration of the people, despite the fact that the people had rebuked him and even thrown him in jail for daring to even suggest that they might be wrong.

I hear God’s name evoked at practically every political event and I hear how so many of the candidates running for office are devout, possibly born-again Christians. But I hear what they are saying and what they desire and I have to wonder if they even know what it means to be a Christian. Now, it is entirely possible that I do not know what it means to be a Christian but I hope that I am working on that.

If this nation was truly a Christian nation or one that held to Christian values (which seem to be the “buzz words” for many politicians today), then there would be no hunger in this nation, there would be adequate and proper healthcare for all, there would be adequate housing for all, there would be a living wage instead of a minimum wage, and each person would have equal standing in society. Yet, when I look at the values of this country, it seems that we want to keep all that we earn for ourselves, we have no desire to help others in need (except when we think it will validate our ticket into heaven), and we seek to justify making some people lower-class citizens because of their race, their sexuality, their culture, their religion, or origin. We have tried very hard to make sure that war was justifiable in all cases and no matter what the case. Our politicians, no matter what party, always seem to end their speeches and campaign rhetoric with a resounding “God Bless America!” But how can God bless this country or any country or the people of this planet when more money is spent on weapons and destruction or on selfish interests than on insuring that all the people, no matter who they are, have enough resources to make a living (not just survive but live).

What is Paul telling Timothy in the portion of that first letter that is the second lesson for today, “If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough?” How are we to respond to this/ How are to respond when it is our pursuit of the good life for one instead of for all that is leading us to a path of total destruction?

When the rich man dies in the Gospel reading for today, he has the opportunity to see what he missed. He also finds out that all that he had is meaningless because he ignored the one man by his door. And he also found out that he cannot warn others of his fate. He had the opportunity to change his life and he missed it; he had the opportunity to help others and he missed it. And now he pays the price.

I hear all these people today who speak out loudly and proudly that they are good Christians; yet there actions speak of other beliefs, of other gods. I hear all these people who speak of wanting it all for themselves and it doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor. The poor want what the rich have because society has told them that is what they should have; the rich don’t want to give it away.

I know that there is a lot being said today that because we live in a democracy, we can earn as much as we can. No one, not even John Wesley would argue against that idea. But, to paraphrase what John Wesley say, don’t earn your money on the backs of the labor class. And having earned all you can, save all you can and then give all you can. There is a responsibility that comes with being a Christian to care for each other and what I see happening is that people today do not want that responsibility. They want to earn as much as they can, they do not want to pay for quality products so that they can keep all they can, and then they complain when they have to pay for the responsibilities that come with the privileges.

Politically, I would say that we truly and seriously need to think about a living wage, not the minimum wage as the standard for employment. I know that there are some who are going to say that you can’t do that. But who are the loudest to complain? Are they not the ones who earn more in one year than their workers earn in a lifetime? I know that there are those who will seek to scam the system; if I read Acts correctly, there were people who tried to do the same thing 2000 years ago. And in the Book of Acts, we read that they kicked out of the community, a community of believers who banded together for the common good.

It would be nice to run away, to run off into the hills and hide. But that won’t prevent the destruction that is coming. Jeremiah prophesized and was jailed for his words and actions. But in the end, his words and actions were shown to be true. And he bought the property because he knew that God would redeem His people, even for all that they had done.

It is the same for us. We have the opportunity, we see the signs and we can make a change. We can still be known as Christians if we first repent of our past life and accept Christ. Hear the words that Christ spoke to us two thousand years ago; heed the warning and repent. Begin anew to build the world that will be the world for all people.

What is going to happen in the coming days? I wish I knew. What I see is not what I want.

What I know today is that the solution is not found in the present system. It is not found in a system which allows us to keep all that we have and not take care of the others. It will not be found if all we say is that we are Christians; those words ring so hollow these days.

But it can be done if the words that said are turned into actions. It is all about what we do with the words that we say; if we just say the words and do nothing; then nothing will happen. But all through our history, those who have acted on the words in this world have made a change. We have that opportunity today, we have the opportunity to ensure that this world goes on. The question still remains, what is going to happen?

“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 -  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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There are two questions that I wish you would consider this morning. First, why are you a United Methodist? Second, why are you here this morning?

The fact that you are here this morning suggests that you would say to someone that you are a United Methodist and, just as that someone might ask, so too do I ask, "Why are you a United Methodist?"

I would hope that you say that you are a United Methodist because you respect diversity in theology. You feel that as long as the differences in belief between you and others are rooted in the essentials of Christian faith, then those differences enhance one’s understanding of God and challenge you to grow in faith. I would hope that you would say that you rely on God’s grace for salvation – grace that brings you to faith, grace that forgives your sin and renews us, grace that continues to nurture you and draw you on toward perfect love.

You know that one’s conversion and new birth in Christ, whether sudden or gradual occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And finally, you believe that faith in Christ is expressed in outward works of love – that personal salvation leads to a mission of evangelical witness, caring service, and social action for human liberation, reconciliation, justice, and peace.

As a United Methodist, you understand that God calls one to clarify and communicate one’s faith – to put beliefs into words – for us and for others. We do this by using four different sources, scripture, church tradition, Christian experience, and reason. Each of these sources, while making distinctive contributions, work together to guide our quest as United Methodists for a vital and appropriate Christian witness. (Adapted from "Distinctive Emphasis of United Methodists" in The United Methodist Way by Branson L. Thurston)

But I also know that many people attend church for primarily non-theological reasons. Hopefully, when someone decides to become a member of a particular church, it is because they were a member of a similar church somewhere else and they wish to hold to the ideas they have heard before. But, for many, they attend a particular church because it is the closest church to where they live. Or they attend a church because it was the church where their parents and perhaps their grandparents attended.

Now, there is nothing wrong with either of those reasons. They are probably the main reasons why someone goes to a particular church. In fact, theological reasons for attending a particular church probably rank lower on any given list of reasons. I would not be surprised if childcare and parking rank higher and are more important in the reasons for going to church.

But, in a world where people are searching for meaning in their lives, most mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church hold to the church building models that are based on 19th century assumptions.

Churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries prospered because the children raised in the church stayed with that particular church. But as our society has changed, children have moved away from the places they were raised. They no longer attend the church of their childhood and are just as likely not to attend church at all. So the basic assumption that many churches have used for growth has failed, because there is no internal growth in the church.

I am not sure if convenience is a viable model either. But that is today’s model. Churches today are encouraged to offer programs for everyone. When a visitor comes, the greeters are to find out what the visitor is interested in and direct them to a group with the same interests. Coming home the other night, I saw a poster for one of the major old-line denomination churches in New York City. I counted at least fifteen different program areas offered by the church. There was something for everyone; there were five different choirs, ranging from traditional church music to Gospel music; there was a gay and lesbian support group; there was a mother’s group with childcare; there was a major Bible study, with the church’s in-house Biblical expert. Each program offered each group something. Yet, as I read the brief descriptions, I wondered if I wasn’t just reading descriptions for social groups. Yes, there were references to growth in faith but it seemed like socialization was more important.

And with all this information occupying the major part of the poster, it took some doing to find out if this church even offered Sunday morning worship. It was there but in an inconvenient and visually inaccessible part of the poster. In fact, the church’s three radio shows got more attention than did the worship service.

The problem is that when convenience takes precedence over worship, the church risks transforming itself into nothing more than a rather ornate 7-11 store, open at all times and for the convenience of the customer.

I am not opposed to having groups in church; the church has and always been an important place for the community to come together. But I wonder if the emphasis on the groups of a church hides the real reason for why churches exist.

Have we forgotten that the reason that we are here this morning is because we are supposed to be here? Have we forgotten that we are here to worship God and to thank Him for what He has done for us? Do we not remember that our presence here today completes the covenant established between God and His people on the Mount when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments?

We are here today because it is an expression of our faith. Perhaps, like Timothy, it is the faith in which we were raised. That is how Paul sees it, the family connection that only then can be said to "live in you." Yet, faith is never a mere family hand-me-down but a "gift of God that is within you" and "a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us." Faith is an incarnate reality that, while a gift from God, is one that comes embodied in our human, including family, relationships.

There are no easy analogies to explain how one comes to faith. But we must know that faith is always God’s gift and never a human accomplishment. Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside our efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to the One we have found trustworthy. As United Methodists, we find that it is through the Scripture, tradition, experience and reason that we are able to gain faith and find our faith growing.

The Gospel for today addresses another issue regarding faith that is still very much with us. Are the degree and depth of our faith adequate for life’s circumstances? The concern here is voiced by Jesus’ own followers whom He sternly commanded to beware of causing little ones to stumble, but also to be generous in extending forgiveness even to chronic sinners who continue to repent. For once, "the apostles," as Luke calls them, seem to have grasped the difficulty of what Jesus is teaching and plead with Him, "Increase our faith!" Jesus replies rather obliquely,"If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." Apparently faith isn’t about capacity; it is an orientation. Faith is beyond measurement. You’ve got it or you don’t, Jesus goes on to suggest. Having it is like being the slave who simply does what is commanded, who knows his or her place and does what needs doing.

Archbishop William Temple once remarked, "It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly concerned with our being religious." Jesus would probably agree, since He pricked the balloon of his followers’ own religious pretensions about faith. Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. It is more the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willingness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all of life’s questions and circumstances that one is nothing more than God’s own. (Adapted from "Measure of Faith" by John Rollefson, Christian Century, September 21, 2004)

We did not read from the Book of Jeremiah this week but we did read Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah is credited with writing the Book of Lamentations and the words of this somber book are Jeremiah’s cries at the destruction of his country. But Jeremiah does not cry because Israel has been defeated militarily but rather because the people of Israel have lost their faith in God.

When the people of Israel trusted in God, when the people of Israel put their faith in the covenant with God, they prospered, succeeded and survived. But when they ignored the covenant, when they put their faith in other gods or other means, they failed, were conquered and enslaved.

We are faced with hard questions and hard choices this day. We cannot ask for or demand an increase in our faith; to do so would be folly. But we can and should look at what we are doing and ask if these actions that we take, the words that we speak are true and outward expressions of our faith.

Paul’s words to Timothy were simply to keep the faith, hold on to the values that define his faith. Paul’s words were encouragement to Timothy in a time of dismay. Paul knew that his time was at an end and it was time for Timothy to take the lead. Rather than lament the loss of Paul as a leader, it was up to Timothy to lead by the faith that had brought him to this point in time and would lead the church into tomorrow.

Paul knew that if the churches that he had worked so hard to establish were to continue, they could not hold on to the ways or thoughts of the past. The same is true today; churches that hold on to the past will find it difficult to move into tomorrow. Those that cater to the needs of today will also find it hard to be there tomorrow, for what they offer is for today only.

But those churches, no matter how old the building or the people, no matter if it is an established traditional denomination or a new upstart denomination, who hold on to the faith that brought them to this time will find themselves as good as yesterday. And those churches that hold on to the faith of yesterday and live today in way that fosters and encourages the growth of that faith will find their doors open tomorrow.


Meeting the Challenge


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 7 October 21.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 –  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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The three readings for today all deal with faith. Paul writes to Timothy as an older colleague encouraging a younger one experiencing difficulty. In the Gospel reading the disciples are crying out for help because they feel that the demands being placed on them exceed what they feel they can do.

And at a time when hope seems lost, when it appears that God has left us behind, the reading from Lamentations speaks to us of God’s presence in our daily lives. I have to agree with the commentaries that said it is very difficult to preach from Lamentations.

The name is certainly appropriate. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, this plaintive outcry reveals the prophet’s broken heart. Lamentations was written at a time when Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s grief comes from not from the loss of the city but rather because the people of Israel had forsaken God.

Yet while the title of the book speaks of sorrow, grief, sadness and misfortune, there is within it a statement of faith. We find in the passage for today a statement of God’s involvement in our lives, especially when we think that He has forgotten about us.

The lament of the people was for a God they felt was gone; a God who had left the people to suffer. Yet the problem was that God had not forgotten the people of Israel but rather that the people of Israel had forgotten God. When we forget God, then our lives tumble out of control. When God is a part of our lives, our lives are in control. The call of Lamentations is not one of complaining and grieving but rather how we can regain the presence of God in our lives.

There are certainly times when things look hopeless or beyond anything that we can do. I am certain that many people feel that way right now. We see everything the world today and wonder how it is that God could allow such things to happen.

And when what happens seems to only happen to us, then the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness becomes even stronger. Our ability to survive becomes less and less when we feel that we are alone in the world and that no one appreciates that which we do.

I think that is the point that Jesus made with the disciples. This passage is also mentioned in Matthew and it comes after the disciples have been challenged to do the good works of the Gospel message. Failing to drive out some demons, the disciples call for Jesus to give them faith. Yet Jesus points out that by faith alone they could move mountains (in Matthew) or uproot the mulberry tree and its complicated root system.

A Christian must always be prepared to endure the demands of the kingdom, even when it seems impossible to do so or even when it seems that one has done enough. In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus pointed out that the servants of that time did not have the opportunity to forgo doing another task. Yet in crying for Jesus to teach them faith that is what the disciples did.

Jesus’ message of love, hope and peace was a radical new view of service. It is perhaps the hardest part of the message. It says that even when you have done what you were asked to do, more is expected. And when you expect payment for what you have done, you find that there is no extra payment for the extra work.

If we focus our lives on the present world, it is very difficult to see how the Gospel works. We expect that we only need to do the minimum in order to reap the maximum rewards. We are used to solving monumental tasks in terms of monumental solutions. It never occurs to us that the solution can be in expressed in the simplest or smallest terms.

Jesus chose the mustard seed because it is one of the smallest seeds we know; yet the benefits of that seed exceed its initial size. When one in our community is faced with monumental struggles, it is imperative that they know the solution comes not from within but rather from the community of support that they have.

It is not clear why Paul wrote that second letter to Timothy but it certainly was written as a means of encouraging Timothy to hold to the course that he had started. One other reason Paul wrote Timothy was to remind him that he was not alone in the work that he was doing. That he was a part of a community of faith, that despite all the troubles that he was encountering and the feeling that he was not being successful there were those in his community who supported him and sought to help him in any way possible.

So to is it with us. We build courage in others to remain steadfast in their faith by helping them reconnect with God in life-affirming ways. Paul shared with Timothy the gospel of Jesus Christ, the salvation, grace, victory over death, the light of life eternal, and the power of those truths even today. Paul understood that true courage, the ability to stay the course comes from looking to Christ, not looking within us.

And when we are asked to take on one additional task; when we are asked to one more thing for the community or the church, we need to know that the solution comes not from within but rather from God. There is a need to see that solution in the church today. Not just the Methodist Church in general but Walker Valley UMC specifically.

The challenge we have to find the leaders for the coming year. The challenge is to make Walker Valley UMC a stronger part of the community so that it is there when people need for it to be there. One might see the passage from Lamentations in a very dismal sense, that of a deserted and lonely community with people needing help but not finding it. But it can be seen as a promise of hope. As you leave today, think of the mustard seed. Faith, like the mustard seed, can be strong enough to move mountains. Faith can give you the opportunity to the see the future in terms of hope, not despair. There is a challenge before us this day. Through faith, we will find the ways to meet it.

The Good Life


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2007.

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This has been edited since it was first posted on 29 September 2007.

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The other day I attended a meeting about a financial program. I did so to help a friend in the program meet a goal. In order for me to help my friend I had to attend this meeting which was essentially designed to get me interested in the program. This was somewhat defeating because I had already been exposed to the information.

The premise of the financial program is that financial success comes from planning and the establishment of financial goals. A second premise is that meeting these goals comes through time and cannot be accomplished overnight. As far as that goes, it was an example of good stewardship.

But the presentation itself bothered me. It was a presentation that said there was no hope in what we do. There were three presenters at this meeting and all three presumed that those who were attending the meeting were in jobs that offered little financial reward, no hopes for advancement, and very little overall job satisfaction. The only reason that they offered for going to work was because one needs a paycheck.

But they suggested that with each payday comes the possibility of job loss as well. You got the impression that though there were other options that one could take, the only true option for job satisfaction, advancement, and financial reward was their program and its offers of riches and security.

I don’t deny that there is some truth to what they said about work. There are many individuals who are truly stuck in a job with no hope for advancement and which provide no satisfaction. There are many people for whom each payday does bring the possibility of job loss or reduction. The recent UAW strike against General Motors pointed this out very vividly.

We too often equate job security with hope for the future. The future is often unknown, a dark and fearsome place in which we dare not tread. We seek security as a means of anchoring our lives so that we can make tentative steps into the future. But when we anchor our lives in the present it becomes very difficult to move forward.

We also equate the size of our paycheck with job satisfaction and security as well. With enough financial resources we can get whatever it is we need to find security, happiness, and enjoyment in life. We live in a consumer-oriented society that says that the “one with the most toys wins!” Maybe, just maybe, we tell ourselves that if we get enough of the right things, then everything will turn out right.

I have also noticed that there is an increase in the number of casinos in this country. Once, many years ago, gambling and casinos were limited to Nevada but now it seems as if there are casinos is every state in the Union. Similarly, the lottery was almost non-existent or limited. Now, it seems that almost every state has a lottery of some sort. People flock to casinos because there is the lure of immediate riches and lotteries promise fantastic sums of money to the winners.

I don’t deny that it is fun to go to casinos and enjoy the entertainment and perhaps partake of some of the games that are offered. I don’t deny that there is a thrill in putting down a dollar or two in hopes of multiplying the returns by thousands or perhaps millions. But you do so with the understanding that you don’t gamble with money that you can’t afford to lose; you don’t gamble with the grocery money or the mortgage payment. And you had better understand that the odds of winning millions in a lottery so that your future is insured are incalculable or improbable. The people who win consistently at the casino work at the game they play and the casino is not always happy that they come. Casinos want the person who does not understand the game, not the student. And the casinos do not help when it turns out that a player is addicted to gambling; they take the money and leave the person to deal with the consequences.

And while the United Methodist Church has voiced its disapproval with gambling, it has not been a loud voice. I would have thought that the United Methodist churches in Mississippi would have voiced a concern about the building of the bigger and more structurally-stable casinos on the Gulf Coast following the destruction of the gambling industry after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But I guess the desire for an economic base was stronger than concern for the destruction of family and life.

That is the problem with the quick fix theory of economic riches. People accept casinos because there is the promise of jobs, even if the jobs are service sector type jobs. People accept the lottery in their state because it comes with a promise that other areas, such as education, are supported. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the promises made with regards to the profits from casinos and lotteries are not always met. In cases where money was promised for educational support, it has been diverted to pay other state bills. There was a promise of hope but it was not delivered.

I suppose that it wouldn’t be so bad but we hear the same message in too many churches on Sunday and on multiple cable channels throughout the week. The message of the prosperity gospel tells us that our own satisfaction and rewards come when we plant a seed in the minister’s garden. Unfortunately, the only ones who seem to enjoy the harvest from those gardens are the ones who encouraged the planting of the seeds and sowed the false gospel.

Why do people insist on giving money when it seems so obvious that the only ones asking for the money are charlatans and fools? Why do people jump into business ventures that promise enormous riches with little effort? Is it because they see no hope in what they are doing at the present time or in the future?

Planning for the future is the centerpiece of today’s Old Testament reading. (Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3a, 6 – 15)  The people of Jeremiah’s time were more concerned with the impending doom of Israel. Jeremiah was imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that were to come. But while Jeremiah is sitting in the jail cell, he arranges to buy some property. His act of investing is a statement that he trusts God and that he, Jeremiah, knows that good things are about to happen. We will learn in a few weeks that Jeremiah is set to announce a new covenant between God and the people of Israel. It will be a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. It is an announcement that brings the people hope and that is what we should be considering as well.

Can we find hope in what we do and the money that we earn? We probably have all heard that “money is the root of all evil.” Thus, we might be surprised that it is not money but the “love of money” that is the root cause. (1 Timothy 6: 9) So what is the outcome of life if we pursue a job for money only or if we accept that premise of the prosperity gospel that it is proper and acceptable to seek riches for riches sake? If we are so eager to seek riches and riches alone, will we not be like those who Paul characterizes as wandering away from the faith and piercing themselves with many pains? (1 Timothy 6: 10)  Can we conclude that our search for riches that drives our lives and which Paul so wants to discourage us from doing blinds us from what we should be doing?

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19 – 31), Jesus speaks to that point. Each day a rich man walked by a poor man named Lazarus and each day the rich man ignored him. Now, this rich man would privately tell you that he kept the commandments, paid his tithe at the temple, and was a righteous man. But each day he still ignored Lazarus and when he died, he found out what his ignorance meant.

It is important to first note that we live in a society where the rich and powerful have names and the poor and helpless are unknown. Yet, in this parable, it is a rich man who is unnamed and it is the poor man who is named. As with so many other examples, Jesus turns the rules of society backwards.

When this unnamed rich man dies, he finds himself condemned to the fires of Sheol and tormented by unimaginable pain. Only then does he become aware of Lazarus. Only then does he see Lazarus, who each day lived in unimaginable suffering, being welcomed and comforted by the angels of heaven. It was a scene that the rich man never imagined and it could only have added to the pain from the fires that he was feeling. And when he begged Abraham to send a message to his brothers not to make the same mistake that he had made and Abraham told him that the message had been sent but his brothers would not listen, the pain grew even more severe.

What then should we do? C. S. Lewis portrayed hell, not as a flaming inferno, but as a dark, shady, chilly, and above all boring place. Its proud citizenry could actually choose to leave whenever they wanted to do so. But, just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, and hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, “if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?”

Because, in spite of the misery that comes with the choice, they always insist on choosing to keep something. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things.

Either you say to God, “Thy will be done” or God will say to you, “thy will be done.” If God speaks to you first, then you will be like the rich man caught in a hell longing for a comforting drink of water.

The rich man’s hope was right outside his door. Lazarus was his neighbor, figuratively and literally. His own salvation was as close as the other side of the door yet the separation was wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches that separated them in the real world so he could not cross the massive chasm that separated them in the afterlife. He chose not to cross when he could and it prevented him from crossing when he wanted to cross.

Could the rich man have saved his soul by tossing a nugget of gold to Lazarus? What if every now and then he had told his servants to give a few leftovers to Lazarus? Would that have been sufficient for God to proclaim “well done, good and faithful servant!” Hardly, for the opposite of poverty is not wealth but rather community. Those in poverty are often shut out or shunted aside by society. A community cannot go forward if there are any left behind.

And as we learn from the case of the rich man and his treatment of Lazarus during his life, it is impossible to change the results after you died. We often see Christianity in single terms, in terms of what it means to us alone. But even though we choose to follow Christ individually, we are part of a community and a community that leaves some out or ignores them will not grow.

Good stewardship is more than good planning of one’s resources. It is about using one’s resources, however limited they may be, so that others may benefit as well. Paul’s advice to Timothy this day is not about money nor is it about avoiding those who seek only money. I think Paul’s advice is about the quality of life one leads. Is it a life that enables not only the individual but those in whom he or she comes into contact to have a good quality of life as well? Is it a life in which the qualities of Christ are evident?

Stewardship is more than just financial planning; it is about a quality of life that brings security and happiness. Jeremiah planned for the future that would come with the Messiah; we know that the Messiah is here and our lives reflect that presence. If we are to have the good life, are we to do it in a way that offers no hope and very little security? Or are we to have the good life in Christ with the promise of victory over sin and death? The good life is truly ours for the choosing.


What is a person worth?


This is my post for tomorrow, September 17th. As with the others, if you wish to use parts of this or the other posts, please let me know at TonyMitchellPhD@optimum.net

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The greatest disaster of this month was not the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the Gulf Coast of the United States; it was what the people of the United States have done to the residents of the Gulf Coast.Now some will say that it was the New Orleans city government that failed; some will say that it was the Louisiana state government that failed; and some will say that it was the Federal government that failed.All did but all of these political bodies were elected by the people; it is the people who failed.

Now I know and I am aware that many individuals took upon themselves to begin rescue operations.Many individuals ignored the restraints put on them by all of the government bodies and went ahead and did what had to be done.But, from the very moment that it was clear that this was a disaster in process, how many people thought only of themselves and what they needed to do.Did anyone stop to think about the others who might not get out?

The Israelites began their journey, the Exodus, out of Egypt not with rejoicing and celebration but with complaining.First, as the Egyptian army bore down on them, they complained that they were going to be killed on the battlefield, not in their beds.Then, when they got hungry, they complained that Moses was going to cause them to die of hunger in the desert.In the saga of the Exodus, they then complained about the lack of water.Each time, God saved them.

First, he helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea and then drowned the Egyptian army in the same waters.Then, in today’s Old Testament Reading, he feeds the Israelites with manna from heaven.We could continue this reading and note that God, through Moses, warns the people to take only what they need and no more.Those that are greedy will find that the bread they gathered up but did not consume will rot overnight.The people learned early in the journey across the desert that God’s word is true and one should listen to it.And when it is time to observe the Sabbath, God tells the people to take enough for two days.But not everyone listened and, thus, they went hungry.

Jesus is making the same point in his parable about the laborers.In God’s eyes, we are all the same.Yes, in today’s world, those who work an eight-hour shift should receive more than those who only work two hours.But, in this parable, all those who work in the vineyard know that they will receive the same wage for their efforts.They have to realize that in this case, it does not matter whether one works two hours or a full day.But I think that we can say that if we are all equal in God’s eyes, then the rewards for our efforts should be equal, if we do equal amounts of works.If we choose, and that is the key, then we should not expect the same.

Hurricane Katrina did not differentiate between rich and poor, healthy and sick, those who had shelter and those who did not; the people did.And it continues, even after this devastating hurricane has gone.Those who have are able to survive and those who did not have still suffer.The politics that existed before somehow still survived the storm and we read of no-bid contracts, the removal of fair wage requirements and a lack of concern for environmental considerations.

We have all come to see that there is a great divide in this country, between the poor and the rich.It is somehow reminiscent of the economic divide that drove John Wesley to ask if the church cared for all of God’s children.

John Wesley looked at poverty as an evil to be eliminated through every allowable means, not as a necessary consequence of culpable failure on the part of the poor, or as the unavoidable fate of those excluded from God’s election. He constantly investigated the causes of poverty, encouraged and applauded diligent labor, and strove to awaken in the rich and influential a sense of responsibility for eliminating social evils. Wesley vigorously opposed injustice and dedicated himself to seek the welfare of the poor.

God’s love for all people became the cardinal point of ethics, and indeed for the whole Christian life, which is described in Wesley’s belief in perfection. To put into practice this “love for all people,” Wesley initiated various activities toward self-help and charitable deeds to relieve their distress. He encouraged his classes to collect funds, food, clothing, fuel, and medicine and health care for distribution to the poor.

Yet, those who had the ability to help often times turned against Wesley and the early Methodist reformers.What would Wesley say today, with the divisions between economic status so great and now so visible?  What would Wesley say today with the growth of the mega-churches and the “feel good” gospel message many pastors preach?What would Wesley say to a pastor who wears a $2,000 suit when he himself let his hair grow long so that the money he saved could be given to the poor?  

What lies before us is a chance to change the direction that we are headed.God has shown throughout the ages what He can do; God has also shown what He will not do.Some will say that 9/11 and Katrina were God’s work, to show us His anger at the sin that we have allowed to envelope our country.But the ones who make such claims are among those who judge others before acting.I have said and written it before and I will do so again.If God has the ability to take us away in the moment of rapture, as some claim that he does, then God has the ability to wipe out the sinners among us with one quick swipe of his terrible swift sword.

Perhaps God allowed 9/11and Katrina to happen because he wanted to give us another chance to follow him—and not in words, but in deeds.

Here is a chance to show that we really do want to belong to him; that we really do love our neighbors as ourselves and are willing to lay down our lives for our friends. Are we ready for the challenge? I hope so.

After 9/11, we said we would never let things go back to normal. In a way, they haven’t. But for most of us, daily life has gone on as usual. That became clear in the wake of Katrina. Our first concern, judging by the headlines, was how the hurricane had affected oil production and other commodities. Only after that did we begin to address the tremendous need of half a million shattered lives. (Adapted from http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/jca/Gods-Trumpet.htm?source=DailyDig for 16 Sept 2005)

What is a person worth?What shall be the value of our lives if we, as Paul writes to the Philippians, live to the flesh?Paul said to live one’s life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.The Gospel message is one of care for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.It is not about becoming wealthy, it is not about exclusion or rejection of those you think are not worthy of concern.Our lives today should what a person’s worth is, not what they are worth.Our lives today should be about caring about others, not caring only about ourselves.Then, the Gospel message of Christ will be fulfilled here on earth, as it is in heaven.