“Who Gets Invited?”

Here is the “back page” for the 15 October 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost, year A) bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Our services start at 10 and you are always welcome to come and be a part of the worship.

How many of you remember Steve Allen?  If I were to describe this talented individual in one word, I would say that he was creative.  Whether it was in the arts, the theater, or music, Steve Allen found new and creative ways to express his thoughts.  And one of those ways was through a television series he prepared for PBS, entitled “Meeting of the Minds”.  In this show, he brought together notable individuals of history (portrayed by actors) to meet and discuss ideas, common or otherwise (I first referenced this in “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?”)

My notes don’t give me all those who sat at his table but it would have been nice to have Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer there to discuss the nature of Christianity.

If you were given the opportunity, who would you invite to sit with you at your table and discuss topics of common interest?  And what would you do if any of the individuals you invited could not attend?  Who might you then invite?

Would St. Augustine be an acceptable substitute for Martin Luther?  Would you invite Attila the Hun, even if you knew he had bad table manners?

What if they didn’t let you know until the last minute?  Might there have been someone you overlooked because they were not famous?

Who might you invite to this metaphorical table if it meant that the course of history might change because you did.

We have chosen the path we will walk.  And who we walk with along the way tells us something about that path.  Who will you invite to walk with you today?

~~Tony Mitchell

“The Life You Lead”

Mediation for October 19, 2014, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Laity Sunday

Exodus 33: 13 – 23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10; Matthew 22: 15 – 22

I wrote some notes about these three passages a couple of months ago with the thought that I would be in the pulpit somewhere this Sunday. But in re-opening this file I noticed that what I wrote back then does not match what I am thinking today, which is often the nature and case.

I don’t know why this particular Sunday was picked to be Laity Sunday. I suspect that if one were to go back into the history of the denomination and examine old copies of The Discipline I think one might find a legal paragraph or two that mandates that lay speakers do one service a year in their own church.

I have a sense that such a rule/paragraph existed at one time and I know that it doesn’t exist today. In one sense, if it did exist, it would be a little impractical, especially in those churches with more than one active lay speaker. Of course, there really isn’t such a thing as a lay speaker anymore, having shifted to the title of lay servant and preaching or presenting the message is no longer the primary task of the lay servant.

But in one sense, having changed the focus from speaking to service makes every Sunday a Laity Sunday.

I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the nature of the sermon and whether it served primarily as a call to respond to Christ or to provide information to the assembled people or some other purpose. I hope that we concluded with the idea that a particular sermon serves a particular purpose based on the situation and needs of those in attendance. But it also served as a call for each member of the church, the laity, to respond in some way.

Now, hold onto that thought for a moment. I will come back to it shortly.

In addition to time being set aside to recognize the laity of the church, this is also the time that many churches begin their stewardship campaign. And unfortunately most of these campaigns are simply pleas for money to operate the church and its functions for another year (see “Creative Stewardship” and “What Does Stewardship Mean To Me?” as my response to that approach).

Stewardship has to be more than simply giving money for the operation of the church. When everything is expressed in terms of operating the church, then I fear that we have elevated the building to a status similar to a false idol. This is not to say that the building is not important but then again, how many successful churches today are operating outside the framework of a permanent structure?

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, again looking for a way to entrap him. This time, the issue is taxation, an extremely sore point with the religious establishment who could not stand that money taken by the Romans was money that could have been given to them. And Jesus replies that one gives to the government what should be given to the government and one gives to God what should be given to God.

Let’s not get into a discussion on the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of citizenship (of course, back then the Israelites were not necessarily considered Roman citizens). But too many people, I think, use Jesus’ thought of giving to the government and giving to God as an excuse to not give to God because they have to give so much to the government.

But that can only occur when God is not the priority in your life, when His presence is a slot of time on Sundays and sometimes during the week. In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses challenges God to make His presence known to the people so that they will know and understand the special relationship they have with Him.

I think the problem is that, while God is among us today, we are blind to His presence. We speak of the unique relationship that we have but we don’t acknowledge it. And if we do not acknowledge it, we can’t be aware of it.

I wrote a prayer a few years ago that hung in our feeding ministry’s kitchen. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of it on my hard drive. But I remember that one line I wrote acknowledged that Jesus Christ would be one of those who we feed that morning. How can we give to God what is God if we do not treat everyone as if he or she was a representative of Christ?

Second point, how can we see God if our lives are lived in such a way that it doesn’t reflect what we believe? When you read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians for today, note how he commends them for leading a life that shows the presence of Christ and what that means to others. Others see in the Thessalonians the way to live and the openness in which that live works.

And now I go back to the idea that every Sunday is Laity Sunday and that we, the laity, take with us at the end of the service is the knowledge that we serve Christ with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.

You cannot split your life into parts as far as Christ is concerned. You either live it fully in and with Christ or you do not. And if you do not live it fully in and with Christ, then you had best do what Jesus Himself first called upon the people to do, repent of your ways and begin anew.

You cannot expect people to accept you as a Christian if your life does not show the love of Christ. What was it that cause the people to notice the behavior of the Thessalonians if it was not a change in their life?

In response to such a challenge last week, I wrote that “generosity requires a change in thinking.” Anyone can be generous with their money but how many people are generous with their lives?

On this Sunday, we need to understand that it is not a recognition of what we have done but rather what we are going to do. It is a recognition that the life we lead is one that leads to Christ and helps others find Christ in a troubled and disturbed world. It is a life that does truly lead to peace and justice for all.

Who Shall Feed My Sheep?

Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 October 2011. The Scriptures this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 -22. . It is also Laity Sunday and I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. 

I have edited this since it was first posted. As I was preparing a report, I noticed that I had this piece listed as the 18th Sunday after Pentecost when it was actually the 19th Sunday.

Yes, I know the title of my message is more attuned to what transpires in the Gospel of John following the resurrection (John 21: 1 – 19) than any of the readings for today. But in one sense, what Jesus asks Peter to do in that passage very specifically relates to what this day, Laity Sunday, is and should be about. So bear with me as we look at the three readings for today.

Let us first begin by remembering what this part of the country looked like some two hundred and sixty years ago. Route 9 from New York northward was, if I am not mistaken, first called the Albany Post Road and so it would have been the major land route north out of New York City. I would suspect that Route 22 would have been here, though obviously not paved. It would have been a well-worn path coming up from New York City. And when you look at the churches between Cold Spring and Carmel along NY Route 301, you know that there had to be a path there as well.

Those who had come to the shores of this country came seeking a new life, hoping that their future here held more promise than their lives in the old world ever would. Perhaps they came escaping an unpleasant past and/or present and just wanted the chance to start over. Others perhaps just wanted to start anew and fresh. Settlers to this part of New York would have followed these early land routes as well as sailing up the Hudson to find a place to live and begin their new life in this wondrous new world.

But starting over and beginning anew is more than coming to a new country and building a home. No matter how you want to romanticize it, it was and still is hard work.

Those who came to this new world knew that there was nothing here; nothing, at least, in terms of what they left behind in the old country. There were no towns; there were no schools; there were no churches. All that was once part of their life was left behind in the search for a new life in the new world.

And within the framework of each individual is a desire to know more about the world around them and there is a desire to understand and know that God is a part of one’s life.

So this new life required that you find a place to build a home and as people came you began to build a town, a school, and a church (especially when you came to this country to escape religious persecution in the old country). You built the school for the future of your community, though I sometimes think that we have forgotten that. And in many towns, especially in the mid-west, you know that the town is dying when the school closes or consolidates with another school.

Churches were and are an integral part of any town’s community. It is about having a place where one’s soul can be refreshed; it was about having a place where their souls could be feed. You built a church to give one’s soul a chance to recharge (and I will say that I know we have forgotten that). There is a great sadness in many communities across this country, not necessarily in the rural areas, when a church has to close its doors.

In those early days of this country, it wasn’t just a matter of building the schools or the churches; it was also finding the teachers and the preachers. When you look at the history of higher education, you see that the first colleges and universities were directed towards the training of ministers (which might surprise many of the alumni of those institutions). But those who were in school were not going to be in the pulpit for some time and the people were, if you will, very hungry.

It was a hunger that John Wesley understood and one he struggled to fill. His problem was that the Church of England was not willing to send ministers from England to lead the congregations that had aligned themselves with Wesley’s Methodist Revival. And Wesley was reluctant to appoint/ordain anyone. Ultimately, John Wesley will appoint individuals to lead the new Methodist congregations in this country. But, “The rise of American Methodism is largely the story of self-motivated laypeople whose experience of God’s redeeming grace compelled them to preach and organize societies, which later were linked together to form the earliest connection…” (From “That Dear Man of God:” Edward Evans and the Origins of American Methodism as quoted on http://www.methodist-motion.org/id43.html)

From the laity came the first circuit riders, those individuals (not always men) who traveled from location to location bringing the Word to the people. When one looks at the churches in this region of the Hudson Valley where we live, we see the sites and locations where they visited and preached.

But it does not matter whether we are talking about America in the early 18th century or America in the present time. People still feel the need to feed the hunger in the soul; they still need a place where they may find rest and comfort from their labors. And perhaps more so today than 250 years ago, they need to know that there is a reason for what is happening in this world. In a world of anger, hatred, violence, and war, they need to hear that there is an answer and it is not the answer of more anger, more hatred, more violence or more war.

The people know that the answer to this hunger, the place where they can find the answers, the place they can find rest and comfort is the church. But it is hard to find the answers at times when the world demands we pay more homage to Caesar than we do God.

We have become a society in which the weekend has become an extension of the workweek and we fail to realize that our soul needs rest as much as our body does. The Biblical notion of a day of rest every six days has somehow become the idea that everything not done during the previous six days must be done on the seventh.

And the church is as guilty of this as any other societal institution. Instead of being the place where we can find rest and comfort, it is another societal institution demanding our time and energy. We have forgotten what the church is and was about.

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser.

Most of those words were written this past Wednesday afternoon. That evening, I received Dan Dick’s post. Hear what Reverend Dick wrote about the United Methodist Church in general,

As I prepare for General Conference I am reminded again that there are two churches in today’s United Methodism: one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world. One is concerned with numbers; the other is concerned with lives. One is concerned with image; the other is concerned with integrity. One is concerned with power and control, the other with justice and service. We stand at a crossroads. We need to make a choice. Will we sell out to a lesser vision of church as social institution or will we rise up to BE the body of Christ? It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.


There are many challenges facing the church, be it the church in general, a specific denomination or a specific church. The competition between Caesar and God will not be won by condemning Caesar nor will it be accomplished by making God the new Caesar. It will not be accomplished by marketing the church or finding ways to make the church seem like it is part of society.

There was another reason why I entitled the sermon what I did. There is a song by Jefferson Airplane entitled “Good Shepherd” which is based on the words that Jesus spoke to Peter in John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep


If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my life complete
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

I used that song as part of the basis for a sermon a couple of years ago (see “A Rock and Roll Revival”) and in preparing that sermon I found that the lyrics for a 60s rock and roll song came from an early 19th century Methodist preacher. More importantly, it was what Jorma Kaukonen, the lead singer for the Airplane on this song, said about singing passages from the Bible. For Kaukonen, such songs as this one have opened the door to the Scriptures for him.

And I truly believe that is what the church must do today in order to feed the sheep of the world. It must find avenues and doors in the world around us that will open the Scriptures to the people who have that hunger that only the church can feed.

We cannot feed the sheep with platitudes and good wishes nor will they eat when all they receive from the church is rejection and hostility. Right now, I fear that too many churches have taken the attitude that the world outside the church should be left behind, never to be seen again. But what will you do when people find God in the world of rock and roll songs? When Jesus told his questioners to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and render unto God that which was God’s, he was telling them to put things in perspective and priority. God does come first, no matter how or where you find Him.

The question is a simple one, “who will feed my sheep?” Our task is to feed the sheep wherever they may be. The people did not come to the circuit rider; the circuit rider came to the people. So who shall we call upon?

Moses asked God who was going to lead the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land and God said that he, Moses, would. Not some highly trained preacher or minister but a simple shepherd. Of course there were no highly trained preachers or ministers back then; there was just a group of people leaving a life of slavery and toil to return to the land of their ancestors, to return to a land of hope and promise. Moses would have Aaron, his brother, to help him but all the work would be done by the people.

When the Methodist Church began in this country two hundred and seventy some years ago, there were no trained preachers but there were committed lay people, willing to undergo the trials and tribulations of traveling town to town on nights when, as the old saying goes, the only thing out were Methodist circuit riders and crows.

Now, in the 21st century, when the people of the world cry out in anguish and pain because they sense that they have been forgotten and abandoned, when the bodies of the people and the souls of the people cry out in hunger, both sustenance for the body and sustenance for the soul, we hear Jesus again calling to us, “who will feed my sheep?”

On this Laity Sunday, there can only be one answer. Are you prepared this day to answer?

The Rules We Play By

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.


I used to be a football official but had to give it up when I suffered a knee injury back in 1986. It was a fun time, working games that ranged from the Saturday morning Pee-Wee and little league games through Friday night high school games. In fact, had it not been for the injury that one Friday night in 1986, I would have even gotten to do some college games that season.

And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time when we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?

Perhaps the greatest moment in my officiating career came one Saturday night in 1983 during two games at Southhaven, MS. It was a routine to give the announcer a card with the officials and their positions listed on it so that it could be read over the PA system. We always felt that if you were going to boo the officials, you should at least use the right names. For the two games that night the game card read: Robert Mitchell, referee; Tim Mitchell, head linesman; Terry Mitchell, field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2; and Tony Mitchell, clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2. This was the only time in our family history that the four of us worked as a game crew. And, to be honest, we never did find out how the coaches reacted when they found out that the game crew was a father and his three sons.

Though there were little hearted moments, such as that night, the business of officiating was a serious one and it bothered me that many coaches, and for that matter, many parents did not know the rules of the games. Too many times during a Saturday game, a coach or parent would complain about a call we made or one we missed or why we wouldn’t let them do certain things that everyone saw happening on Sunday afternoon. To these complaints, the response was “this is Saturday, coach; not Sunday.”

Rules are the way we live each day in a civilized society. Without rules and laws, life would be chaos. In giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments early in the Exodus, God was giving them the rules of basic morality and relationships.

The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts, our relationship with God and our relationship with others. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God:

  1. Put God first in everything.
  2. Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
  3. Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
  4. Set aside a day to rest and remember God.

The remaining six commandments deal with our relationship with others:

  1. Show respect for your parents.
  2. Do nothing with an intent to harm another person.
  3. Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
  4. Respect the rights of others.
  5. Respect others reputation as well as their lives and property.
  6. Care about others, not about their possessions.

Robert Schuller wrote “ God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”

It is also important to note that God gave the commandments to the Israelites after, not before He chose them. He did not say to a group of people wandering in the desert to keep these commandments and you would become my people. Rather, people will want to live the kind of life described by the commandments because God saved them.

God also did not force the Israelites to accept his laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and what would happen should they choose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings upon the Israelites if they obeyed the commandments. This was the foundation for what is called the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham, this was an agreement between two parties, God and Israel.

In any society, there is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you need instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools where the parents had the resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.

In Israel, during Jesus’ time, the laws and the interpretation of laws based on the Ten Commandments had become so restrictive has to make it impossible to live. In that society, salvation was seen only in terms of following the law.

But if the laws of society were so restrictive, salvation was hopeless. When the laws are this way, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing wrong and not doing right. Remember how aghast the Pharisees and scribes were when Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Somewhere through the passage of time, the Israelites forgot that the covenant with God given to them with the Ten Commandments was a two-party agreement. The parable from Matthew in the Gospel for today is a reminder of that covenant. As it said in verse 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”

The Pharisees and leaders of Israel had created a society that demanded perfection in following the law as the only means of achieving salvation. But God gave the laws to the Israelites after he saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation; believing in God is.

Paul, in the portion of his letter to the Philippians that we read today, makes it clear that he knows the law.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

But he, Paul, points out that righteousness cannot come from the law but rather from Christ and his salvation. In verse 9 we read,

Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Paul pointed out that, though he had everything in terms of the law, he lost it all to Christ on the road to Damascus.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Can we have a life without laws? Of course not. Laws are the rules by which society is able to keep together. The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or political ones, as the means to achieving success. But when that happens, when we see the nature of laws as the means of success, when we believe that our path to heaven is set by how we obey the laws, then success can never be accomplished.

We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior, that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.

The same is true for us today. If we try to live a life in terms of secular rules, derived though they may be from the Ten Commandments, we will quickly find that life is a difficult task. But when we come to Christ, when we as individuals make Christ the center of our live, it is much easier to live.

Paul wrote to Timothy about living life each day. In 2 Timothy 2: 11 – 16 we read,

If we died with him, we will also live with him;

If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

A Workman Appointed by God

Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.

The rules that we live each day by are easy ones to understand but we must remember when we got those rules and they were given to us. Paul concluded the portion of the letter to the Philippians by noting that he continued to press on with the goal being the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

That is the same for us today. By which rules will you play the game?

What Do We Need?

On this 19th Sunday after Pentecost, I am once again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 16: 2 – 15, Philippians 1: 21 -30, Matthew 20: 1 – 16.


This may sound like a political sermon but it is not. For the record, I started thinking about this sermon and preparing the opening paragraphs before I learned that next Sunday pastors from twenty states are going to give politically based sermons as part of a protest to challenge an Internal Revenue code restriction that limits the political activities of charitable organizations (which includes churches). Engaging in political activities can cause such organizations to lose their tax-exempt status. (See Pastors to Protest IRS Rules on Political Advocacy). Interestingly enough, the only time that I am aware that the IRS actually prosecuted, or attempting to prosecute, a pastor for such actions involved a liberal pastor whereas the group organizing this action is a conservative organization. But while I will use politically based words and I will call for action, the action I will call for stems from what I feel are our duties as Christians.

But, to understand who we are and what we are, we have to consider some very political words, words that have been a part of this country’s vocabulary from its very birth.

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

With these words, Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence and not only did he express the ideas that formed this country, he also expressed the dominant views of society; that we have the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.

But what qualifies as life and what is our right to life? What do we actually need to live on this planet? Well, first we need air. Without air, or rather oxygen, life is not sustainable. So, we need to be concerned when the quality of the air that we breathe is compromised. We need water to drink and if our water supplies are compromised or disappear, our life becomes rather complicated. This is one of the major problems in the third world and anywhere there is a disaster which disrupts the water supply of a community. Obtaining fresh, drinkable water has long been one of man’s basic instincts; in Exodus 17, we read of the Israelites’ complaining to Moses about the lack of fresh water to drink.

Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”

But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” (Exodus 17: 1 – 3)

Yet, while the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink will determine the quality of the life we live, we seem to ignore the environment and the consequences of our actions to it.

And life requires food. As we read in the Old Testament lesson for this morning, the people grumbled because of the lack of food. And in response to the grumbling and complaining of the people, God provides them with enough meat and bread to eat for each day. But he also tells them that, on the sixth day, they are to gather enough for two days. Without saying so in this particular passage, God is preparing the people of Israel (and us) for the coming of the Ten Commandments in which He will tell us to “honor the Sabbath and keep it Holy.”

Now, in the parts of Chapter 16 that we did not read, we find that there were those who gathered up more than they could eat and they quickly found that the extra that they had stored away quickly went bad. And those who failed to gather enough on the sixth day found that there was nothing for them on the seventh.

This passage has meaning for us in many ways. But I think that we, who proclaim that we live in a land of plenty, have to realize that many of those who live in this same land go hungry each day. And the report from the food banks that operate in Newburgh, including the one in my own church, is that the number of individuals and families applying for food assistance is growing each week.

In light of what has transpired in the financial markets this past week, perhaps we should contemplate what God said to those Israelites wandering in the desert about being greedy. Take what you need to live but don’t take anymore than you need, for the extra will go bad. Yes, there will be days when you need to have a little extra and you have to plan for those days but what are we to say when some have much and there are many who have nothing?

I will also add what John Wesley said about wages and salary, “Earn what you can but don’t do it on the backs of others; save all you can, and give all you can.” Wesley had no problems with people earning wages (he was one of the highest paid individuals in England) but he had problems with those who would not share in their wealth. Wesley was routinely audited by the 18th century British equivalent of our IRS because they could not comprehend that he was earning all that money yet had nothing to show for it.

We live in a time of conspicuous consumption, where the only goal for many people is the accumulation of large amounts of wealth and material goods. But there are people today who are not accumulating wealth but rather living week to week on a paycheck or even day to day on what they can get from various sources.

There is clearly a divide between the rich and the rest of us in this world. At the beginning of the last century, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones. In 1960, the ratio increased to thirty to one. As we started this century, average income per person in the twenty richest nations was almost $28,000 per person, in the poorest nations this average income was just over $200. This is a ratio of 140 to 1.

These are the figures for the world; the disparity between poor and rich in this country is much the same. The ratio of incomes between the top and bottom one-fifth of the population is eleven to one in the United States. Every decision made in this country for the past six years has been in favor of the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes. (“Our Endangered Values”)

Yet the church remains remarkably silent on this issue. If the church speaks out today, it is to encourage people to seek riches through God or it is to condemn people who do not believe as they do. . The pastors that will take part in the protest next Sunday will not be preaching against poverty, war, or the ills that trouble mankind today. Rather, they will be preaching from a Gospel that matches none of the words in the Bible but fits their way of thinking that Heaven is a place for a select few, a select few that they themselves, not God, have chosen. While they may speak of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, they merely want to put their own personal kingdom in place and rule over it like the dictators of Rome ruled over Israel at the time of Christ. They would establish a church where the rich and powerful are awarded the best seats and the poor and disenfranchised are turned away at the door.

While they may not preach the prosperity gospel of many of today’s television pastors, the gospel of the right only seeks to glorify wealth and power where care for the weak and needy should be paramount. While I am thankful that there are many churches that do not fit the model of these “modern” churches, the churches that people hold up as successful are those with operating budgets that come close to those of many small countries and whose pastors earn salaries in the millions of dollars. How is it that a pastor can have a million dollar salary, several homes, a private jet and the other accouterments of wealth when Jesus told his disciples to travel simply? Is it any wonder that people see Christianity in less than a favorable light?

What would Wesley say today, with the divisions between economic status so great and so visible? I once asked what he would say to a pastor who wears $2,000 suits when he himself let his hair grow long so that the money he saved could be given to the poor. But now I wonder what he might say when the CEO of a company earns several million dollars in bonuses while their company was going into bankruptcy or what would he say to those people who own four or five houses when there are people who cannot even afford the simplest of shelter?

Some years ago I would have said that the divide was between the poor and the rest of us but it is quite clear that the gap is greater between the rich and everyone else. But no matter how the divide is perceived, it is there and it is getting bigger everyday. And to make matters worse, the dominant thought for the past thirty years or so is that if we give the rich their money, they will make sure that it trickles down to the rest of us. While there are those who have helped, the news of the past few weeks have shown that many have not.

It is, to me, reminiscent of the economic divide that drove John Wesley to speak out and ask if the church of his day cared at all for all of God’s children. At a time when poverty was seen as the product of a sinful life (much as it was in Jesus’ day), Wesley saw poverty as something that should be eliminated, not the consequence of failure on the part of the poor or some avoidable fate by 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 the need to eliminate social evils. Wesley vigorously opposed injustice and dedicated himself to seeking an improvement in the welfare of the poor. The early Methodist movement sought to collect funds, food, clothing, fuel, medicine, and health care that would be distributed to the poor. 

There is a challenge that faces the churches of this country, no matter how big or small they may be. It is the challenge of being what they say they represent and doing what Christ did in this world. I used to hear that all we were to do as Christians was go out and make disciples of all the people of the world.

For many, this is simply a call to tell others about Christ. But what are we to tell them? I have come to learn that the word disciples may not be the best word to use in this call. And I have come to know that simply telling others about Christ may not be enough. As Wesley himself often noted, what good does it do to tell people about the saving Grace of God when they are hungry, cold, sick, or in prison? What good does it do to tell them that God loves them but that their poverty is their fault?

The Gospel message today is not about the inequity of wages; it is about God’s grace given equally to all who seek it. It is a difficult passage to follow because we want to see it in terms of material gain. We work longer so we should get more. It bothers people that God’s grace is freely given and their work doesn’t count. It is not what we do or what we have done that gets us into heaven; it is the Grace of God. No matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, unless we understand that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior, then everything is folly.

Wesley learned this the hard way; until that moment that we call “Aldersgate”, he floundered in his efforts to find peace and happiness. Paul’s words to the Philippians that we read today should echo in our minds and souls. It is not what we are doing in this world that counts the most; it is what our life in Christ is that will determine our outcome.

Too often, we see the Gospel message only in terms of our own well-being. We have transformed the message into a self-help guide for the rich and powerful and how to become rich and powerful. We have transformed the entire Bible into a rule book that allows us to do anything we like, be it in our relationship to the world in which we live or with the people with whom we share this limited space. A phrase that resonated throughout my high school and college years was “if not now, when; if not me, who?” We are asked to fulfill the Gospel message; we are asked to do it today. And we have the capabilities to do so.

To be a Christian isn’t about what we need but rather what we can give. In discussing the future of Christianity, President Carter wrote

Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.

It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us. (“Our Endangered Values”)

A number of years ago I came across a story out of Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the people of Clifton Presbyterian Church. It starts with a homeless man who started coming to Sunday morning services. A lot of times such individuals are discouraged from coming back but the people of Clifton Presbyterian made him feel welcome. Then, one day in 1979, the people of the church remembered Jesus saying to them “inasmuch as you have done this to the least of these.” So, they made plans to give this homeless individual a place to lay his head at night.

They took the pews out and brought in chairs to sit on. With the pews taken out, they could install cots. So it was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church’s Night Hospitality ministry began. This one individual now had a place to stay and a place to eat. Other homeless men began to show up. And this church, as long as they were sober and obeyed the rules, became their home.

The people of the church realized that providing a home was not enough. Many of the men who spent the night needed counseling and training. The church bought property across from the church and turned it into transitional housing. The ministry grew, so much so that the people of the church made a decision to disband the congregation and move to other congregations. But they did not abandon the ministry that they had started. It is still there in Atlanta, located in a middle class Atlanta neighborhood. Though Clifton Presbyterian died, the Clifton Sanctuary Ministry remains today.

Not every church could have accomplished this. The time and place in which one is called is never going to be the same as it is for others. At the same time that I came across the story about Clifton Presbyterian, I came across another story.

In his notes for September 6, 2006, the blogger known as Quotidian Grace writes about a workshop led by Reggie McNeal that was based on McNeal’s book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”

During the seminar, McNeal told the story of a woman who wanted to help high school students in her neighborhood. She went to the principal of the high school and said that she wanted to volunteer to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to. The principal was thrilled and invited her to the next assembly. She rounded up four or five other women from her church to go with her. At the assembly she told the students that it was much harder to be a teenager today than when she was growing up. “Some of you don’t know one of your parents, you don’t have relatives close by; you may be having problems at home or school or with a girl friend or boyfriend.” She then gave them the phone number of her church and said to call that number if they just wanted someone to talk to. The next day the church had over 300 phone calls from those kids. (http://quotidiangrace.blogspot.com/2006/09/seeing-churchianity-in-church.html)

Again, how any particular church would respond to a similar situation is dependent on the church, the time and the place. But the point still remains that this unnamed woman sought to reach out to the people in her community.

It reminds us that there are those who have heard the words of the Gospel to bring hope to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to be a voice for the oppressed and those without a voice. It reminds us that in the city of Newburgh, there is a homeless shelter for men only open during the winter months, when it becomes too cold for the men to sleep outside. And while homeless men have limited access, homeless women and homeless families do not have any type of shelter. There are discussions taking place that would remedy this situation but it speaks to the issue when we would rather save large corporations than we would nameless individuals.

Unlike those pastors who feel it is their God-given duty to tell you how to believe, I can only suggest that you hear the words of the Gospel; that you hear the words of Christ calling out to you to bring the Gospel message to the world; to show others through your life, your words, your deeds and your thoughts. You are the only one who can answer the call.

Each of us, no matter which church we attend, has a stake in the well-being and care of the others with whom we share this planet. It isn’t about giving money to a charity or cause or donating time and energy, though those are always nice things to do. It is about accepting Christ as one’s personal Savior and allowing the Holy Spirit to come into one’s life and then fulfilling the Gospel message. We are reminded, as we come to the Communion Table this morning, that Christ gave His life so that we could live. The question this morning isn’t necessarily about what we need but rather what will we give because we have been given our lives.

Who Goes First?

I am preaching this morning at Poughquag United Methodist Church. Here is the text that I will use. Let me know what you think.


This was the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23- 32.


Some of you might think that there is a connection between the title of my sermon and Abbott and Costello’s comedy routine, “Who’s on first?” There is something of a connection but it is more about how the routine is done rather than the routine itself. For those who do not remember or have never heard this classic routine, it is a dialogue between two individuals about the makeup of a baseball team. The problem is that one individual says “Who is on first” as a declarative statement while the other uses the same phrase as a question. There is much confusion as the two individuals work out the players and their positions.

But the reason for my title and the connection to this routine is the fact that it is something that challenges us to listen carefully to what is being said. I personally lament the loss of such comedy and feel that the comedy of today is too quick and visceral, as opposed to the thoughtful political satire that I first heard growing up. It was comedy that challenged us and made us think, something I fear is no longer prevalent in society today. In fact, our society seems a far cry from the society in which I grew up, one in which challenges were a part of our life.

In 1961, John Kennedy spoke before an audience in Houston, Texas, and declared that this country would go to the moon. After summarizing the recorded history of civilization, President Kennedy concluded,

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (http://www.jfklibrary.org/j091262.htm)

But I fear that the spirit of the challenges put forth that hot September day in 1962 is long gone. Those of that generation remember the energy and spirit that filled the days; those of my generation, just children, were the beneficiaries of that spirit. But that spirit and the challenges that were laid before us in those days seemed to have disappeared in the past forty years. Even though NASA announced plans to return to the moon in the coming years, it was done as almost an afterthought, “gee, we haven’t been there; maybe we should go and see if things have changed.” And now, as members of Congress began to discuss how to pay for the cleanup in Louisiana and the Gulf, cutting the return to the moon was mentioned as one way to pay for it. No discussion was mentioned about other ways to recover the cost if it would take away from the pet projects of Congress and the Administration.

That we do not seek a challenge today should not be surprising. In 1990, the noted entrepreneur Charles Handy noted,

“Later on, I came to realize that I learned nothing at school which I now remember except this — that all problems had already been solved by someone, and that the answer was around, in the back of the book or the teacher’s head. Learning seemed to mean transferring answers from them to me.

A few paragraphs later Mr. Handy quoted John Dewey,

“Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.” (From The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990)

If we have removed the nature of discovery and have made life without challenges, it should not be a surprise that life is the way it is today. It should not be a surprise that the change in how society views challenges has affected the modern church. Much has been made about the decline in church membership, especially in the United Methodist Church. Some have said that the decline in membership in the mainline churches has occurred because the church has failed to answer the basic questions of its members.

Members today are looking for answers and many churches are failing to provide them with the answers. Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

But I fear that these new churches are going to quickly find that their brand of the Gospel is no better than what people criticize the United Methodist church for, a message that is designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But I believe, as I believe John Wesley did, that you cannot save a person’s soul if they are hungry, if they are naked or homeless, or if they are oppressed. For the United Methodist Church, the problem is and will continue to be that we have failed to establish why we believe what we believe. We have forgotten that once we have accepted Christ as our personal Savior, we must work to help others find Christ in their lives. We no longer challenge people. But that is what Christ did; he challenged his listeners and followers. As we read the Gospel lesson for today, we need to see that Christ is challenging us to determine which of the two sons we might be.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks “which son are we? Are we the faithful or the unfaithful son?” Both of the sons lied to the father but one changed his mind and went to work while the other never followed through. Like the Pharisees, we know the answer to the question – the hero of this parable is the son who did what his father asked. But who among us has not been like the second son? We all know how hard is it to keep the promises that we have made. We would rather direct this parable to others. All of those right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with their success-oriented gospels and mega-churches, they are the ones who should be the subjects of this parable. (Adapted from “Showing Up” by Roger Lovette, “Living by the word”, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. If we do, we will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.

We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. (Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)  To take the Bible seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say is the beginning of our troubles. Those who would argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable do not deal with the contradictions that it contains. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradictions but because they are so demanding. The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans to understand, though it would not be to literalists. (Adapted from “The Burden of the Gospels” by Windell Berry, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We have to remind ourselves is what we do that makes the difference. In 1969 I began to look very seriously at what it meant to be a Methodist. I thought it was what I did that counted the most, not what I believed. But I was reminded that if I did not believe in Christ as my savior, then it really didn’t matter what I did. But, on the other hand, if I believed as John Wesley did, then I needed to put my thoughts into action. It is a reliance on words and words alone that have brought the United Methodist Church to the brink; it will be the words that many evangelists speak today that will drive away those who are searching for meaning in this dark and gloomy world.

It is our actions of which Paul writes “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philippians 2: 4 – 6)

The first people of God complained loudly and long that God had forsaken them in the desert of the Sinai. They had complained when the Egyptian army was bearing down on them while they stood on the edge of the Red Sea. They had complained when there was no food to eat and they felt that they would die of hunger. And in today’s reading, they are complaining about a lack of water. It is almost as if the people of Israel do not want the challenge of reaching the Promised Land. Each week we have heard how the people of Israel felt that their times in Egypt were better times than were their travels through the Wilderness. To hear them say it, it would be better to have died in slavery, content with living in oppression than it would have been to reach the Promised Land, the home of their forefathers. But not everyone criticized Moses. God tells Moses to take with him selected elders and then He will provide the water.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

So too is it for us. There are those who relish the challenge; there are those who see God’s glory rather than God’s wrath. There are the ones who, when faced with poverty, sickness, or oppression, react and seek resolution. There are those who avoid challenge. There are the ones who seek to blame or say that person’s sorrow is a reflection of their sin and whatever happens is because they have fallen from God’s favor. We need to be more of the former than the latter; we need to hear God calling us to work in the vineyard and we need to answer that call.

It is no longer a question of who will go first but rather what will be done first. We are faced with two questions today. For some, it is the same question as the disciples were given so many years ago in the hills of Galilee, “Who do you say that I am?” And there are others who are hearing the question that Mary Magdalene heard that first Easter morning some two thousand years ago, “Who do you seek?” Those seeking the answer will find that answer in the words we say and the things that we do.

This is the day that the challenge is placed before us. You are challenged to answer the questions that have been posed before you and you are challenged to help others find the answers as well. How will you respond?