“Transformed by Grace”


This will be that back page of the 12 November 2017 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) for Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Services begin at 10 am and you are always welcome.

On these pages and on my blog (see “The Changing of the Seasons”), I have written about that day when I truly came to understand what it means to receive God’s grace.  It is a day that, perhaps more than any other day, transformed my life.

For John Wesley, grace in all its forms was and is a gift from God and a sign of His active presence in our lives.  There is nothing we can do to earn this grace because it is freely given by God to us.  What we can do is seek a better understanding of what grace is, what grace does, and what we can do as a result.

The concept of grace in Methodism is defined by three words: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.  Prevenient grace is the grace that allows us to seek and find God, know the difference between good and evil and to seek good.  Justifying grace is the grace that restores our relationship with God.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God restored.

Sanctifying grace is not a one-time event in our lives.  It is what helps us grow and mature, to live as Jesus lived.  It allows us to seek perfection in our love of God and for others and removing our desire to sin.

Because of what God has done for us, we offer our lives back to God through a life of service.  We are active in the world through mission and service because our Love of God is tied to our love of our neighbor and our commitment to seek justice and renewal in this world.        ~~Tony Mitchell

Notes on grace from “Our Wesleyan Heritage”

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“What Can I Do?”


Mediation for November 16, 2014, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Judges 4: 1 – 7; 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11; Matthew 25: 14 – 30

I started this, then hit a “road block”, then got started again. I don’t know how good this one is.

A colleague and friend, in preparing her sermon for today, asked a very simple question, “What would you do if you only had one talent?”

Had a chance to think about what you were asking and came up with my own question, “What can I do?”

Do we do as the one individual in today’s Gospel reading did, take it and hide it away? Or is there some way that we can do something with what we have?

When I looked at the Old Testament reading for today, I saw that Deborah made one choice. Her single talent was to make the right choices; that’s why she was a judge.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians speak of not knowing when Christ was coming back and that we probably shouldn’t be preoccupied with that notion but focus on what it is that we can do right now.

Each person has at least one talent; sometimes they know what it is, often times they do not know. But there are others whose primary talent is finding others. And that means that there isn’t a problem that cannot be solved.

But it also means that there comes a moment when our preconceived notions about time and space have to be cast aside. If we live in the present world, we will see things in only one sense. What was that George Bernard Shaw quote that Robert Kennedy so often used when he campaigned for President in 1968, “You see things; and say ‘why?’ But I dream of things that never were and say ‘why not?’”

That is where we are. We as a people are faced with many challenges and sometimes we think that we are unable to do anything. But we have been given the opportunity through Christ to see new ways to solve those problems. It changes the question from “what can I do?” to “when do we start?”

Finding the Right People


Here are my thoughts for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 November 2011. I will be at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, next week (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Judges 4: 1 – 7, 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11, and Matthew 25: 14 – 30. 

This has been edited since it was first posted.

It is interesting that these three Scripture readings would come after the week in which elections were held. Because I see in the readings issues about leadership and the response of the people. I also see issues relevant to the church today (I was going to say modern church but there are times when the church today is simply a 21st century version of the Old Testament and one in which the New Testament has yet to be written).

Consider, if you will, the role of Deborah. We hear from many more conservative church leaders today that women should not be placed in roles of leadership, other than perhaps as Sunday School teachers (which would be a stereo-typical role of women as only teachers). But the Old Testament passage points out that Deborah was one of the judges of Israel, one of those chosen to lead the nation in times of war and peace.

Why did Deborah lead her people? Simply put, she had the skills and abilities and whoever wrote Judges must have been impressed enough with what she could do to include her leadership in the history of the people. Her leadership was predicated on her talents, not her gender. This is a point that I think is often overlooked in a reading of the Bible.

Now, I will be honest; when I read the parable of ten talents, today’s Gospel reading, I see it in a variety of terms. When you read the translation from The Message or Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, it is read in terms of money. But one has to be careful, I think, in putting in terms of money because the idea of a five-fold or ten-fold return on your investment is the foundation of the prosperity gospel and I have no desire to go there.

And as someone asked me over the weekend, what would the master have done if either the individual given the five talents or ten talents had invested it in something speculative or risky? Would they have benefited in the same manner as they did with what one may assume were safe investments? Or would they have been chastised as the individual who took his one talent and hid it away so that it could not be lost?

I realize that there is a risk involved in many investments and I want to be assured of a reasonable return on my investment but I also know, especially in today’s society, that the thrill of a fantastic return on a small investment leads to many penalties. By the same token, if you have some skills or talents and you do nothing with them, then you have wasted those skills and talents. But if you use those skills and talents, you have the opportunity to go beyond your present limits.

I see the parable of the ten talents in that light, especially when you think about Deborah. You take the talents you have and you move beyond the limitations that are imposed on you by society. Deborah should not have been a leader of the Israelite nation but her talents and skills were better than any other possible candidate. I routinely point out to my chemistry classes that the first person to win two Nobel prizes was Marie Curie and both were awarded at a time when women were not exactly welcome in either chemistry or physics. But the work she did could not be overlooked and it is too the credit of the Nobel Prize Committee that she was given both awards.

The same is true for each one of us; we each have a unique set of talents and skills and what we do with those talents and skills that will determine the outcome of our life. As I read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, I since an attitude that may have been shared by the individual who received the one talent. We have what we have and we need do nothing more; we can take it easy. But what will happen then?

The title of the message is “Finding the Right People”. It means that we must identify the skills and talents of each individual that we work with and we must determine how to best use those skills and talents. But we have to push the envelope when it comes to making that determination. For only by pushing the envelope (and my apologies for using that cliché) can we move forward.

The problem right now for the church is that we are afraid to move forward, afraid to use our talents and skills in ways that reflect the mission of the church, afraid to venture outside the safety of our sanctuary and church. We hold to worn-out views of the world, views that say only certain individuals are capable of leadership and others must follow them. We hold to views that say that there are only certain things that a church can do. We have to move beyond those views, look at what the churches of the past have done (and I mean the past, say two thousand years ago) and see how we can make that the church of the future.

Actually we don’t need to find the right people; we have them in the congregation today. We have to find out what their skills and talents are and we have to be able to use all of those skills and talents for the good of the community. It is not easy but doing the work of the Lord never is.

It means moving beyond, not holding back. The question has to be, “are you ready to do so?”

You Have To Get Your Feet Wet


This is the message I presented at Modena Memorial UMC on Reformation Sunday, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 1999.  I exchanged pulpits that Sunday as their pastor was at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures were Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.

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When I first read the Scriptures for today, I could not help but think of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In that movie, the first of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones takes on the task of finding the lost Ark of the Covenant and in the process fighting the Nazis for its possession. The Nazis wanted the Ark because they saw its usefulness as a weapon of war that would bring them victory. Now, there may be some truth to that because whenever the Israelite army went into battle with the Ark in front of them, they seldom lost the battle.

But it was not with the Ark used as a death ray as suggested in the movie. Rather, the Ark contained the tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were carved. The Ark was the embodiment of God and when the Israelites followed God, they were an invincible army. It was only when the army failed to believe in God and trusted in the “magic” of the Ark, such as when they fought the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – 6 that they lost the battle and the Ark. However, the Philistines were stricken with such horrible plagues that they quickly returned the Ark to Israel.

In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are about to cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land. God tells Joshua to pick twelve priests, one from every tribe of Israel to carry the Ark. When these twelve touch the waters of the river, the river will stop flowing and a path across the river will be made clear so that the nation of Israel can cross over on relatively dry land.

I grew up as a second-generation military brat, the son of an Air Force Major and the grandson of an Army Colonel. If I had been given the opportunity I would have jumped at the chance to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But my vision prevented that.

The primary function of the service academies is to prepare individuals to serve this country as its military leaders. As such, part of the training the cadets and midshipman received is designed so that they will understand that there are men and women who must ultimately carry out the orders that their leaders give.

The college where I did do my undergraduate studies is not far from the birthplace of Omar Bradley. It was said that Bradley was a soldier’s soldier, a general who understood that there were men who must carry out his orders. The soldiers liked General Bradley because he understood them.

And though I use a military analogy, the same is true in private industry. Good leaders in business today understand what they are asking their workers to do. That is the point of the Old Testament reading today; the leaders of Israel were the ones who got their feet wet so that the nation could walk across the river Jordan.

And I think that is part of the exasperation that Jesus must have felt in the Gospel reading for today concerning the leaders of society. They sat in positions of authority, accepting the accolades that went with the position but were not willing to get involved in the heavy work that went with leadership.

And we all now people in business or elsewhere who are like that. They like the trappings of power but make impossible demands on the workers or refuse to give the workers anything that will make the job easier. Companies with this type of structure find themselves quickly in trouble.

In the Epistle reading for today, Paul noted his conduct while he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. He stated that though he was a messenger of God, that position gave him no special status or power. As the messenger, it is also important to note that he “urged and encouraged” rather than “demanded” that the Thessalonians lead a life of God.

The point expressed by Paul and Jesus in the Gospel reading is simply. If you wish the respect that comes with leadership, you must earn it; it does not simply come with the position. And my friends, this does not apply to just a select few among us who are the designated leaders. It applies to each and every one of us.

The challenges we face in today’s society are seemingly insurmountable. The divisions between us because of race, social status, or economic status will not go away because of who our leaders are now or who want to be our leaders. They will go away when we, as individuals guided by Christ, do His work. In the last of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus notes that there is only one teacher and one Messiah and we are all His students.

There is no way that we can call persons to Christ if we ignore what is going on in the world around us. John Wesley was not the first preacher to preach against the inequities of society in 18th century England. Other preachers did so as well but Wesley was perhaps the first preacher who called upon his parishioners, the founders of what is now our United Methodist Church, to take action.

Someone once asked me to define the differences between Methodism and other Christian denominations. Since all Christian denominations have in common the belief that by our faith in Christ, we are saved by the grace of God, what is it that makes us Methodists? Quite simply, for Methodists, the question is “Having been saved, what shall you do next?”

We can never be perfect and, even as saved individuals, we will never approach perfection. But that should not stop us from trying to reach perfection, of reaching a better state of grace. And that requires that we do, as John Wesley stated, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the time you can, to all the people you can and as long as you can.” (John Wesley quoted in the The 365-Day Devotional Commentary, p. 671)

Jesus pointed out in Matthew 23: 11 “The greatest among you will become servants” and in verse 12, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we are to be good leaders, we must first be good servants.

Our lives as Christians must be more than hearing the Gospel preached on Sunday. Auguste Sabetier wrote

Merely to reproduce his words is not to continue his work’ we must reproduce his life, passion and death. He desires to live again in each one of his disciples in order that he may continue to suffer, to bestow himself, and to labor in and through them towards the redemption of humanity, until all prodigal and lost children be found and brought back to their Father’s house. Thus it is that, instead of being removed far from human history, the life and death of Christ one more take their place in history, setting forth the law that governs it, and, by ceaselessly increasing the power of redemptive sacrifice, transform and govern it, and direct it towards its divine end. (From “The Atonement” by Auguste Sabetier as quoted in The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)

If we are to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we must continue His work. Sometimes it feels like a hopeless cause and we desperately wish to have the Ark of the Covenant preceding us in battle, as it did for the Israelites as they took over the Promised Land. But no one knows where the Ark of the Covenant is today. At the conclusion of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we see a government working putting the crate holding the Ark away in some obscure government warehouse. There is a legend among some Middle East Christian sects that the Ark is in a church somewhere in Ethiopia. But there is no sure way to determine if that is true or not.

Paul wrote the Thessalonians,

When you received the word of God, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in what you believe.

By our faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, God’s word takes on a newer meaning. The word of God is embodied in Christ and when we accepted him, it is as if the Word of God precedes us each day.

We stand on the banks of the river Jordan, looking across at the Promised Land. But to get there, we have to get our feet wet. We have to accept Christ as our Savior and we have to then let His presence in our lives show us the way that we must go. We cannot sit back and let others do it for us. The invitation to you today is that simple, shall you get your feet wet?

The Promise of Tomorrow


This is a sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 27 October 2002.  This was also Reformation Sunday.  The Scriptures are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 33 -46.

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When I first moved to New York some three years ago from the hills of eastern Kentucky, most of the people I knew wondered why. “Why,” they asked, “would I want to leave the hill country for all that concrete and steel?”

So it was that I had to explain that Beacon and the area where I would live was much live the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains with broad valleys. And that the Hudson River at this point, though deeper, was a lot like the Mississippi River north of Davenport, IA, where I once lived.

We all have preconceived notions about the various parts of this country. And of all the places in this country, the one place that I think defies our notions about what it is like is Texas. Much is made, sometimes in jest, about the size of Texas. Now, Texas is not the biggest state in the Union; Alaska holds that honor. But it is the size of Texas that probably defines what it is. And if the size of Texas defines what it is, can you imagine what that means for Alaska?

From where I lived in Odessa, Texas, which is in the western part of the state just north of the Big Bend country, it is possible to drive over 300 miles and still be in Texas. And in the one direction that you can drive and leave Texas, you end up in another time zone.

For orthinologists, Texas presents a challenge. There are five major flyways, routes birds take during migration. Three of these highways in the sky pass through Texas. Until Roger Tory Peterson wrote “The Birds of Texas” for the Texas Wildlife & Game Commission in the early 60’s, most “birders” had to carry two or more bird books in the field for identification.

The geology of Texas also confounds people. In the 1930’s, the first big oil boom in the country was in the oil fields of east Texas. From a geological standpoint, the rock formations where the oil was found were much like the oil fields of Pennsylvania and it was thought that this type of rock formation was necessary in order to find oil. But at least one geologist looked at the rock formations and felt that there was oil in the Permian layers of rock deep below the stark landscape of west Texas. Most people were of the opinion that the only oil to be found was in east Texas, believing that the barren and stark landscape of west Texas was a reflection of a lack of resources below ground. But this one geologist, whose name escapes me now, urged the state of Texas to buy up the mineral rights to the land in west Texas.

And some seventy years later, his judgement about what was beneath the rocks of west Texas has continued to be correct as the oil pumped from the Permian Basin continues to fund the educational coffers of the University of Texas and Texas A & M systems. In fact, most of the oil in the world today is in the Permian rocks, not in the Pennsylvanian rocks as so many people thought.

Standing on the Edwards Plateau, the dominant geological landform of west central Texas, one cannot see that riches buried beneath the ground. No view from the mountaintop will ever show you what is deep within the valleys below.

It must have been frustrating for Moses in those last days of his life to be standing on the mountain overlooking the land to which he had lead his people. It must have been frustrating to have spent all that time in the wilderness knowing he would never see the Promised Land and that it could have been different.

For some forty years before, the nation of Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, just as they did in the Old Testament reading for today. It seemed as if they had learned nothing about trusting the Lord. Throughout the Exodus, the people of Israel continued to show a distinct lack of faith that the Lord would provide and on the verge of entering their ancestral homelands, they could not trust in the Lord. They felt it necessary to send in spies to make sure that it would be safe to enter.

Twelve spies, one for each tribe of Israel, choose a representative to see what promises, what riches were hidden in this land they had just spent forty years to reach. Ten of the spies came back with tales of terror and fears, claiming the inhabitants were superior in strength and incapable of defeat. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back with the promises of a land filled with milk and honey, of promises that the inhabitants could be defeated as long as they trusted in the Lord.

But the people of Israel choose to accept the tales of fear and terror from the ten rather the hopes and promises of the two. And the penalty was that the nation of Israel would wander in the wilderness for another forty years, a time when all those over twenty would die and leave the Promised Land for the next generation. Only Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted in the Lord, would live to see the entry into the Promised Land.

I find it interesting that we still use tales of fear and terror even today. We try to take advantage of every situation for our own good. Rather than seek the future and what it holds, we try to stay in the present. Look at the election ads that are running now. Most, if not all, tend to focus on negative things, on why the opponent cannot do the job. And very seldom do you see an ad that focus on the promises of tomorrow, that offers a vision of what can be. There may be fleeting visions or statements but they are quickly removed by attacks on the opponent’s views.

A lawyer comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, seeking to test Jesus’ knowledge of the Law. But the answer he seeks is not one of edification but rather of justification. Does Jesus’ knowledge match his own?

The answer to the lawyer’s question is from the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema. The confession is called this because it begins with the Hebrew word shema meaning “hear”. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” And then Jesus follows this with the statement that one should love others as one loves themselves. Because we want the best for ourselves, we should want the best for others. We look at the Ten Commandments, we are reminded that we need to love God first and then love others second.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is directed toward those who criticized his ministry. Those who felt threatened by his ministry did so because Paul challenged their beliefs. Their criticisms were meant to show that all that Paul did, he did for himself and his own gain. Paul’s rebuttal was that he neither sought nor wanted glory and gain for himself but rather that all glory and honor should go to the Lord. Paul reminded those who would criticize him that God was the witness to his actions and that he was God’s servant.

For the ten spies the entry into the Promised Land was a threat to their own safety, not to the safety of their people. So they were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes all saw Jesus as a threat to their lives, to their way of living. And it should be a threat for they were doing nothing to insure that others gained, only themselves.

Much like Moses, we stand on top of the mountain looking into the Promised Land. It is easy to stand on the mountaintop and not see anything or not be sure what you are seeing. That makes it easy to be fearful, that makes it easy to turn away and keep what you have close to the vest. When Daniel Boone first stood above the Cumberland Gap, the broad passage between North Carolina and Kentucky, the great opening of the west to the people seeking new lands and the promise of a new life, he must have wondered what was out there. The Cumberland Gap is just south of where I lived in Kentucky and there were many days when the valleys of that area were shrouded in clouds, making it impossible to see what lie on the ground below.

But Daniel Boone chose to go forward, leaving a safe established life for a future in Kentucky and later in Missouri. Moses stood on the mountaintop, knowing that there was a promise in the land that lie below his feet and though he would not get the chance to go to do so, those that trusted in the Lord would reap the rewards.

We stand on a mountaintop, perhaps not one as tall as the one Moses stood on, but still one that gives a great vision of the future. Shall we, like the people of Israel some forty years before, not trust in the Lord and only in ourselves or shall we trust in the Lord as the additional years of wandering had taught them to do? If we fail to trust in the Lord, we will die, like the elders of the tribes. But if we trust in the Lord, then the promise of tomorrow will be a good one and one in which we can hold. That choice is ours.

A New Model For The Church


On this 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, I was at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.

I will be at Dover again on November 2nd and at Lake Mahopac UMC (location of church)on November 9th and 23rd (services start at 10).

I have edited this piece since it was posted.

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This is about the church. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the local church, the denomination or the church universal. It is about the fact that the church, at whatever level, is a church in crisis. It is a crisis that involves the body and soul of the church. The body of the church is dying but unless the soul of the church is healed, no amount of healing will save the body.

And despite my own aversion to the use of business models in church settings, it will be what happens at the local church that decides the health and future of the denomination and the church universal. For, despite all the visions and ideas that change can come from the top, the most successful changes in any organization are the changes that occurred at the bottom first.

This crisis of body and soul has come because we (and here I mean the majority of those who call themselves Christian) have forgotten what it means when you say you are a Christian.

We are faced with an ever growing population, both church and unchurched, who seek answers to difficult questions, questions that come from the soul and from society. These individuals feel that possibly the church does know and can offer answers.  But they quickly find that the church does not know the answers or offers answers which are limited in scope or even confusing.

They see a church that preaches hatred, exclusion, and condemnation. They see and hear people who say they are followers of the Prince of Peace but use words of hatred and violence or who incite hatred and violence. They remember when the church stood up for civil rights and against war but now preach exclusion and support war.

Is it because we have forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten how we got to this place? In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses and the Israelites are unwilling to move further and come closer to the Promised Land unless they have some indication that God is going to be there with them. The problem is that today we have continued on but have left God at the mountain.

In a 2004 interview Tony Campolo noted

I think that Christianity has two emphases. One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society-to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives. That they manifest what the fifth chapter of Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” Fundamentalism has emphasized the latter, mainline churches have emphasized the former. We cannot neglect the one for the other. (from ‘Evangelical Christianity Has Been Hijacked’: An Interview with Tony Campolo)

I would say that while fundamentalists have emphasized the latter part of Christianity, they do not feel like sharing the fruits of the Spirit. As President Jimmy Carter noted in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” He further expanded on this statement by saying,

There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (From Our Endangered Values)

That is not to say that those who would be characterized as liberal and emphasize the social portion of Christianity are blameless. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that the weak point of liberal theology was that while it recognized Christ as a part of the world, it gives him a place but in disputes between the church and the world, it accepted the dictates of the world. (Adapted from Faith In A Secular Age)

You cannot live a life that is entirely guided by religious rules and regulation. If you lead a life of private faith, you create a world separate from the real world and it is impossible to bring the two together. It was this separation of church and state that lead the German church of the 1930’s to acquiesce to the false worldly values of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Nor can you lead a life that is entirely in the secular world. By the very definition of the word “secular”, you are without the church. For Bonhoeffer, there was a desire to see a world that cuts through the sacred-secular dichotomy and would dispense with outward religiosity in order to free itself for the real world of human existence. But this relationship had to also be redemptive in its commitment to the true and costly transcendence of God expressed in Christ’s life of complete self-giving — in the suffering life of the One who was wholly ‘for others.’

We have to understand that Christ shows us God, not as the Omnipotent One who stands outside the word, a God that is God only in some religious world separate from our lives, but as the one who comes to us in our weaknesses and suffering, the One who comes to us by the roadside in the daily affairs of life.

The classic definition of the encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus in today’s Gospel reading shows us that relationship. The Pharisees are again seeking a way to trap Jesus into some statement in which he will either denounce Caesar or denounce God. It is the dilemma we often find ourselves in. We accept the secular world and ignore God, or we totally follow God and ignore the world around us. Neither works. The coin has no value if it has only one side and it cannot be used if it sits on the table with one showing. Evelyn Underhill wrote (in The Spiritual Life)

For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of his reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of his will.

Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole. If our practical life is centered on our own interests, cluttered up by our possessions, distracted by ambitions, passions, wants and worries, beset by a sense of our own rights and importance, or anxieties for our own future, or longings for our own success, we need not expect that our spiritual life will be a contrast to all this. The soul’s house is not built on such a convenient plan: there are few soundproof partitions in it.

So we must build a new model for the church, a model which emphasizes the need of the individual to find the answers the questions of life while reaching out to the community in which the church resides. A model which emphasizes one over the other will die. The coin has two sides and is incomplete without both sides. As Elton Trueblood wrote (in The New Man for Our Time)

Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.

We are called today to build a new church. We are called to build a church that reaches out, not just to the members of the church, but also to the people of the community. We are called to build a church that says to the people “we care”, not “go away, you are not wanted here.” We are called to build a church that reaches beyond age, income, race, creed, or lifestyle.

We are called to be like, among other churches, Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD.

Let’s hear it for Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD! Unlike many former downtown churches that have either closed or pulled up stakes, 142-member Grace UMC has “dug in its heels” to serve the surrounding neighborhood now plagued by drugs, prostitution and gangs, according to DelmarvaNow writer Bruce Stump. Through a partnership with several local agencies, Grace offers a feeding program that served 200 people on a recent Saturday. The church also provides housing help, scholarships, a Christmas outreach and other services. What’s more, it has grown 10 percent in the past three years and sent six members into the ordained ministry. Said member Anne Anderson: “It is easy not to look at places that have crime and social issues, but if we don’t make this place better, everybody suffers, the whole city suffers.” Laughed Grace’s pastor, the Rev. David Weber (who officially works only 20 hours a week): “All this is ‘typical good,’ but for a small church, we are kickin’ butt.” Amen! (From United Methodist Nexus for 10/15/2008)

In other words, we are called to build a church that once was the church, the church that Paul lauds in his letter to the Thessalonians that we read today. It was a church known for what it had done and was doing.

It speaks to the courage of the members of that church that they would be identified as Christian. It was a time when being a Christian was neither popular nor essentially healthy; yet, Paul speaks of the church in Thessalonica as being known far and wide. It can only be because of what the church and its members were doing and what they were doing was reaching out to the community, not keeping the community away.

It will take some doing to accomplish this. We are used to our present model; we are used to the comfortable in an environment where, for a couple of hours on Sunday, we can lock out the world around us. There will always be resistance to changes that call for the church to go beyond its own self-imposed boundaries, to witness in word and life for the true hope revealed in Christ.

We see the old ways collapsing so we need to find a new way to find Christ revealed, not hidden in some strange and dark theology, but as the One who has come to set us free. We are reminded that He told His disciples to tell others what they had seen and heard. There was once a time when the church said to the people, “in the world there is nothing for you but despair and exclusion; but in the community of the church you will receive the acceptance that the world refuses you, the dignity that the world denies you, and the spiritual guidance and community that will be for you a foretaste of the life in the Kingdom of God for which you were created.” It is time that the church says that again.

And while the church is calling out to the people, Christ is calling to the church, “in your years of despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed from love; I call you know to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of their daily lives.

We are called today for an evangelism that calls for decision for Christ which is related to calls for decision in Christ. We are called to create a new model of the church, where preaching points to what God is doing in the world, where the fellowship of the church reveals to the world that we are all one in God’s eyes and where the sacraments are a celebration of God’s redeeming work in Christ.

As we come to the table today, we join with others who celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. As we come to the table today, we celebrate the beginning of the community two thousand years ago that brought Christianity into the world. As we come to the table today, we begin building that new model that will celebrate the rebirth and renewal of the church.

What is the promise?


As a way of introduction, I would say that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and that I graduated from a Memphis area high school in 1968. So it should not be a surprise that anytime I have a mountaintop passage such as the one from the Old Testament, my attention turns to the spring of 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. It was that strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis that fateful spring.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/)

On February 12th, 1375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% (or 8-1/2 cents).

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were aware of this strike. When this strike began a similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended. Even the respected New York Times did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people to be newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

So it was that on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a gathering of strikers and supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee and gave what has become known as his “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, which in part outlined the history of the civil rights struggle, concluded with

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (http://www.afscme.org/about/memphist.htm)

I cannot say, nor do I want to speculate, as to whether or not Dr. King knew that he was going to die the next day. Dr. King was well aware that threats had been made on his life. He had seen and experienced the violence that accompanied the civil rights struggle in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. I do not believe that he thought he was going to die by an assassin’s bullet the next day but I also think that he did not think that this struggle was going to end anytime soon. The tragedies of Katrina and Rita (and hopefully not Wilma) remind us that we still have a long, long way to go before everyone has the same opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There were people back then in 1968 and there are still people today who think that Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was only a temporary setback in the fight for states’ rights. There were those then and I am sure there are those today who feel that maintaining the status quo is the best for all concerned. It is not a new attitude.

Look again at the Gospel reading for today. For once, Jesus is the one asking the questions, trying to elicit a response from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But it was a question that challenged the manner in which they thought and acted with the people; it was a question that they were unable to answer. So, from that day on, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not ask Jesus any more questions. They were uncomfortable with the challenges Jesus put before them; they were uncomfortable justifying what was often unjustifiable. It was also at this time that these respectable religious leaders who claimed to be men of God began to think of ways of eliminating Jesus, the Son of God.

The church today is a lot like the church back then. We are uncomfortable with what Jesus challenges us to do. We would much rather learn about Jesus than learn the teachings of Jesus. We would much rather focus on what Jesus did for us than follow what He preached, taught and commanded us to do in His name. We would rather not be reminded that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We would rather not be reminded that Christ died for us so that we could live free from sin and death. It is almost as if we have taken Jesus out of the church.

The modern church is aware that there are individuals who are looking for answers in a complicated world. These are the ones sociologists call “seekers”. This is the generation that has been brought up with the notion of slick marketing tools and the use of sound-bites, short easy answers to the questions of the day. There is no doubt that these are the ones that the church today must reach out to but I wonder if the church is doing it in the right way. Slick marketing tools and slick sound bites will sell a lot of things but you cannot sell Christ. Rather, we must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, they cannot find what they are seeking. In the Gospel of John we read, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23 – 24) Later John wrote, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31 – 32)

The churches we build are built to make newcomers feel comfortable. The seats are not the traditional pews but rather theater seats that recline. In many churches, the symbols that so often remind us of Christ’s suffering are no longer there because it scares away the people.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, a major author in Methodism and now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, noted that he preached at a church that had tried to make its service “seeker-sensitive”. But in doing so, many of the historic Christian metaphors and images have been removed. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

When I was working on my God and Country award in the Boy Scouts, I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado. My father made a cross that I could carry in my backpack; it enabled me to provide a sense that the service that we had in the mountains of Colorado was a celebration of Christ’s presence in our lives and not just a spiritual moment in the wilderness. The cross is, at least for me, the centerpiece of Christian worship. It is the cross that reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice had meaning. It is the cross that holds meaning for all that we say and do. But in these new, “seeker-sensitive” services, there is no cross; there is no reminder that the Gospel is more than words.

The music, as Dr. Willimon reported, was “me, my and mine.” The music that we sing must life us up, not simply make us feel good. The hymns that John and Charles Wesley wrote gave hope and joy to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same hope and joy must be in the modern songs as well and I am not sure that it is there. Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the “seekers”. The argument is that people don’t relate easily to the traditional songs and such songs are not always easily sung.

I think that is the wrong idea. While it never hurts to learn more songs, if for no other reason that to give better expression to the worship experience we cannot forget what the “old” songs say. We cannot simply change the songs we sing or the way they are sung simply because people don’t know the words or because the words hurt too much. Perhaps the traditional church hasn’t done enough to teach the meaning of the songs that we sing. It simply means that we need to do more. We need to remember that the old songs remind us of the sacrifice and repentance required of us; we cannot simply sing songs of joy and happiness but which have no substance. We should not be ashamed to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” simply because we do not want to be reminded that it is a symbol of suffering and shame.

“The Old Rugged Cross” – United Methodist Hymnal #504

When we sing such songs of power, such songs that offer us and show us the promise that God has for us, we are reminded why we are Christians.

It is become painfully clear that traditional church has failed to provide what individuals are looking for, a message of deliverance. These people want to hear a message that does not makes them feel guilty. They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church-going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. People want to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they have not found it in traditional churches. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) But today’s churches, whether they are modern day “growth” churches or traditional churches struggling to stay alive, have failed to deliver this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message.

The churches in this country that are growing today give the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But this is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and then act. Barbara Wendland, an United Methodist layperson in Texas, points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community should leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and it should inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

The Gospel message cannot be pared down to something that fits on a bumper sticker. The Gospel is meant to transform us, not protect us. Unfortunately, this is not the message of many of these big churches. Without the cross, without the reason, the message presented is sugar coated and self-serving. People come to these services because they are not required to do much more than that.

The Gospel message is to be shared, not hoarded, and we must work to find ways to share it. This is something we are often unwilling to do. We hesitate to respond as Jesus would have us respond because it is so radical a notion. We would much rather focus on a quiet, private, personal relationship with the Lord rather than follow the teachings that call for a public, prophetic witness. We like being on the mountain, we do not want to come down and have to work in the valley. We can live with reports of poverty, sickness, and oppression; we just would rather not have to deal with it.

But as Katrina reminds us, the church needs to be very much a part of everyday life. Not as some would have it, the arbitrators of morality and justice, but as an agent of affirmation that all people are worthy in the eyes of God. It has been said that money should be put into areas where growth and self-sufficiency are more likely. It makes economic sense to do so but this isn’t what Jesus called His disciples to do, it is not what He calls us to do.

Even within the United Methodist Church we are forgetting our roots. No longer are the poor, rural and urban ministries emphasized. But the Wesleyan movement is rooted in the working class and poor. Perhaps it is a natural sign of growth but as we have transitioned into a middle- and upper-class denomination we seem to have left the poor and lower-classes behind. Instead of being a part of the church, we see such ministry as a social service, important in itself but not critical to the life of the church. (http://homepage.mac.com/larryhol/iblog/C2050680009/E20051007090723/

We are a lot like the people of Israel. We refuse to trust God; we refuse to be his people. We might love the person next to us in the pew today; we might even love our next door neighbor. But we are often times not willing to love someone in New Orleans or Houston because we believe that they are not worthy of our love. But the teachings of Jesus tell us that we need to reach out beyond the boundaries of little community. We have to come down from the mountaintop and into the valley; we have to go where the people are, no matter who they might be. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We have to trust in God and know that, in doing so, the promise given to us will be fulfilled.

We do not need to stand on the street corner and proclaim that God is coming at the top of our voice. In today’s society, we simply would be competing with other noises and distractions. No, we need to go into the communities where we live and simply lead the life that Christ would have us lead. We need to show others what Christ is about, not teach who Christ is.

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. As Paul begins this letter, he writes of the trouble that he left behind in Philippi. But it was because he and his co-workers trusted in God that they were successful. He also points out that their mission; their ministry comes from being with God and not for some ulterior or selfish motive. Paul writes that we need to live our lives differently, showing Christ rather than talking about Him. John Chrysostom took Paul’s words to heart when he instructed his congregation to astound people by the way you live. Words are great but they do not match the power of actions. Win the people by your life, not your words is what he encouraged the people to do. (Adapted from “Childish Behavior” by James Howell, Christian Century, October 18, 2005)

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. Just ask John Wesley. Barred from preaching in the churches he grew up in, he turned to preaching in the field. Every bone in his body ached figuratively and actually at having to do this. John Wesley was a firm believer in fixed prepared sermons but preaching in the field lead him to extemporaneous speaking. But the “powers that be” encouraged the people to heckle Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers. It has been reported that on a number of occasions, Wesley was even stoned by the people heckling him. Yet he kept on preaching and wrote of the badges of honor that the stones left on him. He kept on preaching the Gospel message of salvation for all and freedom from sin and death; he kept the promise that had been some two thousand years ago.

The promise of the Gospel is that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless given places to stay, and the oppressed will be set free. The promise of the Gospel is that we who open our hearts to Christ and accept Him as our Savior will receive in the end, eternal life free from sin. And though our body may die, our soul will live on in heaven. As we sing in “The Old Rugged Cross”, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown.”

We all have a mountaintop; we all have a place from which to see the Promised Land. Up on the mountaintop, it is often quiet and peaceful. There is a calmness that we cannot find anywhere else. And we know we are close to God. But God is not with us on the mountaintop. He is down in the valleys below and He is asking why are we not there, doing His work.

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Looking west from Pine Mountain, KY, near Whitesburg, KY (Promised Land State Park is about 10 miles south of this position)

Maybe we should remember why it is that Moses went to the mountaintop. This was not the first time that he or the people of Israel had seen the Promised Land. In Numbers 13 and 14, we read of the people of Israel sending spies into the Promised Land to find out what was there. Twelve men, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, were chosen to find out what lie before them. While two of the spies reported that it was indeed a land of milk and honey, the other ten reported on the troubles that they, the Israelites, would encounter. And to make matters worse, the people plotted against Moses and Aaron and attempted to select someone who would lead them back to Egypt.

Only Joshua and Caleb held to the idea that God would protect them and enable them to enter the land of their forefathers. But the people were not willing to listen, believing the stories of the other ten. The story of the first Exodus is an interesting story. Time after time, the people complain that God has left them to die in the desert and time after time God responds to the cries of the people and provides protection and nourishment. Now, standing on the River Jordan, almost on the verge of reaching their goal, the Promised Land, the people again turn against God.

And God responded almost in kind. God was prepared to destroy all the Israelites, even those who stood by him. But Moses again reminded God that He had shown mercy before and mercy was needed at this time. So God choose to punish the people, causing them to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the Promised Land. Those over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness, never to reach what had been theirs had they been faithful. Only Joshua and Caleb, the ones who told the truth and remained to God’s plan, would be allowed to live and enter the land. The other ten died almost immediately, as punishment for their sins.

Because Moses picked the men who would enter the Promised Land, he had to suffer the same fate as those he chose. And so it was that Moses stood on that mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land, and knowing that He would never enter it. But, as we stand on our own mountaintop and look down on the Promised Land, we know that we can enter that wonderful and beautiful place. That is the promise that was given to us, if only we would accept the call.

God is calling to each of us today, “I sent my Son so that you might live; come down from the mountaintop and welcome Him into your life”. Many have heard that call and God is now asking, “when will you do what my Son has shown you what must be done?” When will you fulfill the promise?