“The Lessons of Wittenberg”

Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, October 28, 2018 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).

Today is Reformation Sunday.  It is the Sunday nearest to October 31st, the date when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

One outcome of this event was to transform a hierarchical church structure into a more direct relationship between humankind and God.  Martin Luther’s protest was that we, as individuals, can meet with God directly and that our fate, as it were, was not dependent of someone else.  Throughout the Book of Job, Job has desired to meet with God and discuss what is happening.  Job understands that God is, to borrow a phrase, an awesome God, awesome beyond imagination.  In today’s Gospel reading, the healing of the blind man also illustrates the direct connection between God and mankind.  This is illustrated by the fact that Jesus did not have the blind man go to the authorities after he was healed.

I sometimes think that we have forgotten the lessons of Wittenberg and the freedom we gained that day.  Our faith is found in what we do, not what others do for us.  When we accept Christ as our personal savior, we find our freedom.                                              ~Tony Mitchell

Who Are Your Saints?

A Meditation for 1 November 2015, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), All Saints Day based on Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1 – 9 (or Isaiah 26: 6 – 10), Revelation 2: 1 – 8, and John 11: 29 – 44

Ordinarily I would be using the lectionary readings for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Ruth 1: 1 – 18, Hebrews 9: 11 – 14, and Mark 12: 28 – 34) but because this is also All Saints Day, I felt it more appropriate to use the lectionary readings for All Saints Days.

But why should we, as United Methodists and also Protestants, even celebrate All Saints Day? To a great extent, the celebration of saints is not a part of our heritage or even our tradition. This, I would think to lead John Wesley to caution the fledgling Methodist Church against holding saints in too high regard. In his Articles of Religion that he sent to Methodists in America in 1784 he included a statement against the “invocation of saints” (Article XIV – Of Purgatory, Book of Discipline ¶104) because he could not find any biblical evidence for the practice and argued against it.

But he also suggested that we should not disregard the saints altogether. In his journal for November 1, 1767, he wrote that All Saints Day was a “a festival that I truly love.” Twenty-one years later, he wrote “I always find this a comfortable day.” And one year later, in 1789, he wrote in his journal that All Saints Day was “a day that I peculiarly love.”

And we know from a reading of Hebrews 12 that we are asked to remember the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and encourage us, cheering us on in our daily lives. So this day, All Saints Day, gives us the opportunity celebrate our history and tradition by giving thanks to those who have gone before us in faith (adapted from “All Saints Day: A Holy Day John Wesley Loved.”).

Wesley also believed

that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason (The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline).”

And since I see my faith in living and real terms, it is better to describe the relationship between the elements in a 3-dimensional tetrahedral rather than a 2-dimensional square (hey, I’m a chemist, remember!).

Tetrahedron.gif (337×286)

Illustration 1: The Wesleyan Tetrahedron

And in addition to the tradition and history of the church, our own experiences play a strong and equal role in how we see this day.

Each one of us knows that our presence here is because there was someone in our lives who made sure that we had the opportunity to be here. Oh, we may have been brought here kicking and screaming and feeling that there may have been better ways to spend a Sunday morning or some event in the middle of the week. And we most certainly didn’t understand then what we know today.

I have said it before and written about those early moments when I felt that God was calling to me. Quite honestly, what I felt was my mother’s elbow in my ribs keeping me awake while the preacher droned on and on. The only way I was going to stop my mother from planting her elbow in my ribs was to go sit by myself in the sanctuary and hopefully not completely fall asleep (which I was able to do). But somewhere in proclaiming my independence to sit wherever I wanted to in the sanctuary, I began to sense God telling me to do more than just sit there.

And when we moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, and I began attending the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora), I also began looking at earning my God & Country award in Boy Scouts. While some may argue that all of the awards in scouting are the choice of the individual, choosing to earn the God & Country award requires a far more internal commitment than the other awards simply because you have to make a commitment to God that changes your live more than one can know when they begin.

So it was that one year later, after having given up my Saturday mornings to be in study at the church with Gary Smith and Don Fisher, when I no longer could sleep late but had to be at church on Sunday morning to serve as one of the acolytes for the 8 am service, after having carried a cross and some small hymnals with me on the troop camping trips and lead short services in the foothills of the Rockies, I had earned the one award in scouting that means more to me than anything else. And I put it away so that I wouldn’t lose it.

But two things happened. First, ten members of my Boy Scout troop who, at first, were probably jealous that Gary and I got out of doing troop things around the church on Saturday mornings (Don was a member of another troop) decided that maybe studying about God and seeking His presence in their own lives wasn’t such a bad idea and the second God & Country class began.

And that is, I think how it works, As there has been someone in your life who pushed you to find God in your life, you will, through what you have done or will do, help someone else to find God in their life. As someone has been a saint to you, so to will you someday be a saint for someone else.

But the odds are that you will never know that this happened. I don’t know what happened to those ten guys who followed us but I trust that it went well.

The second thing that happened was that I found my life changing in ways that were not immediately clear. But one year after I completed my God & Country work, I began the other major journey in my life, the journey that would ultimately lead to my earning my doctorate.

And during the first summer at Kirksville, as a freshman in college at the age of 15, away from home, and with the opportunity at long last to sleep in late on a Sunday morning, I found that I couldn’t do it. I had to be in church on Sunday morning, even though it meant walking to the church as I did not have a car. And on the Sunday that I became a member of 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, Missouri, I met another Saint of the church, Dr. Meredith Eller.

When I joined 1st UMC, Dr. Eller and his wife stood there with me as my god-parents. A few weeks later, Dr. Eller would become my history professor and I would take all of my history classes with him. And while I was actually a chemistry major, Dr. Eller served as one of many mentors in my college life. And when I served as one of the junior class marshals for the 1970 commencement exercise, I discovered that Dr. Eller was not only an esteemed professor of history but an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church (which sort of explained why his doctoral robes were a little more faded than many of the other professors at Truman; while others may wear their doctoral robes once or twice a year for commencement and college activities, he wore his every week as a circuit riding preacher in the northeast corner of Missouri; part of my thoughts about Dr. Eller and other heroes/saints was first mentioned in “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?” and in detail in “Methodist Blogger Profile: Tony Mitchell”.)

In 1984 I made a major move in my life and as a consequence of that move, I began to think about what I had done with what I had learned some twenty years before during that time when I earned my God and Country. At that point, I began to serve as a liturgist in my home church and paid special attention to remember the meaning of Boy Scout Sunday.

And then, in 1991, we find God again reminding me once again that I made a commitment to Him in 1965, and that all I had done, even though it was in chemistry, had prepared me to be a lay speaker and ultimately something of a circuit rider. And I think about those who I helped prepare for the ministry in those years and those who heard my words or read them on my blog and I know that someone will change the path of their life and I might have done something worthy of sainthood.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the other United Methodist preacher from my days and times in Kirksville, Reverend Marvin Fortel. In a conversation that we had in 1969, he changed the direction of my life, and as I pointed out in “The Changing Of Seasons”, neither one of us knew how that conversation would change our lives.

And that is the nature of being a saint. You do not know in the present who might be a saint in your life nor do you know if you are a saint in the life of someone else. You lead your life as it was intended to be lead; you met with people and simply talk with them. In your walk and in your talk, you might offer an alternative to what they are doing.

And yes, leading the life that Christ would have you lead is not always the easiest life and the rewards that one gets in the present time are sometimes few and limited.

But the Old Testament readings for today point out that those who suffered ultimately received their reward in Heaven. John the Seer wrote in his Revelation that the outcome of life for the believers was a good one. And Jesus pointed out when he brought Lazarus out of the tomb that God does know what we are doing and that we will triumph of the slavery of sin and death in the end.

So on this day, we pause to remember the saints in our lives, those individuals who, through example as well as word, pointed and guided us to victory. And we stop to think that there will be those who will hear our words and see what we do and their lives will change as a result.

So when we ask the question as to “who are your saints?” we are also asking “how will we be saints as well?”

Basic Needs

Here are my thoughts for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28; and Mark 12: 38 – 44.


There was an interesting article in Christian Century this past week about biblical literacy (see http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927). It does repeat some information that I have used in the past from a 1997 Barna Survey (such as 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark and about ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament) or a 2004 Gallup survey that showed that nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.

This article looks at the impact of scriptural illiteracy and ways of overcoming it. It is important to consider this because there are too many ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular that come from a lack of knowledge about the one document that is the primary source of information.

Now, I am only mentioning that because of what I see in the readings for today and what they mean for us in this day and age. And, for me, this is an important distinction. If you do not know the basic facts about the Bible it is very difficult to understand what the words mean. And it is entirely possible that you will find a different message in the Scripture readings for today than the one I found. And there is nothing wrong with that because, if nothing else, it means that you are thinking about what you have read. The Bible should never be viewed as fixed in time because to do so is to remove the meaning from the words.

And so it is that I have to wonder why the Book of Ruth is part of the Old Testament. Now, one answer is found in the concluding part of the verses today. Ruth and Boaz had a son who is named Obed. And Obed will become the father of Jesse and Jesse will be the father of David. And, as the hymn goes, from the branch of Jesse’s tree shall come the Messiah.

But, there is more to the story than just the establishment of the royal line that will lead to Jesus. Or at least that is the way it seems to me. The story of Ruth is a recounting of tribal and societal policies, of making sure that everyone has the basic needs. It is in Ruth that we learn that farmers were told not to take the entire crop from the field but leave some on the edges so that the poor would be able to have some grain. This is also a tale about the nature of society where widows were often left outside the care of society.

Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is a widow whose two sons have also died. To be a widow without children, especially sons, in that time was to be put outside the safety net of society. There was no security for Naomi and even less for Ruth. If Naomi is to have any sort of future, she must return to her homeland (having moved to Moab early in the story) and hope that her family will take her in. Ruth, being a Moabite, does not have that security and Naomi has suggested that she return to her family as well. But unlike her sister-in-law, Orpah, Ruth says that she will follow Naomi, even though there is no guarantee of security for her.

Now, the Gospel reading for today also speaks of a widow and most of the time we speak of the generosity of the widow (who gave everything) as compared to those who gave a portion of their abundance. But while we remember that part of the Gospel reading, we often forget the first part where Jesus said that those who “devour widows’ homes and say long prayers for appearance only” will be the ones who are condemned.

I think that we spend so much time in today’s society trying to make the Bible fit our view of the world that we forget what it is that the Bible is trying to tell us. And even if we did at one time know what was in the Bible, we have cast it aside in favor of whatever information we might think is in the Bible because it enables us to have our own view.

The Bible’s main message is that we must care for each other first. The poor get a better treatment in the Bible than they do in real life today, even though there are so many people today who say they are Christians. We may argue that capitalism is or isn’t the best economic system available; we may argue that there are other systems that are better for today’s economy. I am not much of a Bible scholar and I am not much of an economist. But I do recall what John Wesley said about earnings.

John Wesley had no problems with people earning as much as they could; in fact, he encouraged people “to earn as much as they could.” But such earnings came with the condition that you didn’t do it at the expense or “on the backs” of others. In other words, if your employment required the exploitation of others, you were in the wrong business. Your gain should not be at the expense of others.

Unfortunately, when you look at the disparity in incomes today between the various economic levels, it would be hard to say that the very, very rich are not exploiting the poor and under-classes. And the reports that I hear that tell me that local food closets are being pushed to the limit each week with more and more families seeking assistance in putting food on the table says that we have forgotten the Biblical imperative to leave some of the abundance for others.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t finish the John Wesley trilogy on finances. Not only did he say that one could earn all that they could, he said that one should save as much as they could and then give all that they could. It has long been noted that Wesley was one of the highest paid clergy in England but that the British tax collectors could not find his wealth.

They never could understand how someone earning as much as John Wesley was earning could not have anything. But John Wesley had figured out what it would take for his family to live and everything above that amount was given away.

Early Methodists followed his example, living simple lives and saving their money. But they saved their money not to hoard it but to give it away. It has long been noted that most people today do not save enough and our own society seems directed towards getting as much as one can for one’s own benefit as possible with little concern for others.

And yes, this is about health care. I am not going to make a plea for one form of health care or another. But it strikes me that too many people on both sides of the debate are offering plans that are “me-first” in nature and what is it going to cost me instead of trying to determine what is the best for all people. Yes, it is going to cost some people some money but is that a reason to say that others should not get some sort of decent health care? I am not interested in the argument that one plan is going to create some sort of gigantic bureaucracy when the private plans have already created a gigantic bureaucracy devoted more to making a profit than to insuring that people are healthy. Everything in the health care debate and the debate/discussion about the economy seems to be directed towards insuring the well being of the one individual who already has and not providing for the well being of those who have nothing. This is in direct contrast to what the basis for the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today.

The futility of these arguments can be said in what the writer of Hebrew tells us about the futility of the priests who offer sacrifices time and time again. The only true sacrifice is the one that Christ made for us. As long as our attempts to resolve societal issues focus on ourselves long before we worry about what others need, we will never find the answer. On the other hand, if we, like Christ, focus on others before ourselves, the answers will come quickly and easily.

The basic needs of people need to be answered before we even think about the superfluous needs of individuals. Let us pause and think about that as we enter the last days of the Pentecost season and prepare for Advent and the coming of Christ.

The Foundation of Our Hopes

This is the message for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 12 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25;  and Mark 13: 1 – 18.

To me, there is an interesting connection between the Gospel and Old Testament readings for today. At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of war and the rumors of the war in conjunction with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and what must happen before the coming of Christ. The Old Testament reading takes place at Shiloh, the place in Israel where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. But to someone like myself, Shiloh has an entirely different meaning.

The place named Shiloh is about 45 miles east of Memphis and about fifteen miles from the Tennessee – Mississippi state line. In April of 1862, 42000 soldiers under the command of Ulysses S. Grant moved up from Corinth, Mississippi, to the town of Pittsburg Landing. The encampment of soldiers was on the grounds of the simple log building known as Shiloh Methodist Church. And though Shiloh means a "place of peace," the Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest of all the Civil War battles.

It was at Shiloh that Grant and the other Union commanders realized that victory would not come easy. Nor would it be the quick, bloodless victory everyone hoped it would be. After Shiloh, everyone knew that the war would be costly and long.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks of war and the rumors of war. He gives a dire prediction that nations will fight nations and kingdoms will go against kingdoms. In the death and destruction of the Civil War, many saw the end times that Jesus said was coming in the Gospel reading. Historians have noted that the period after the Civil War was a period of great evangelism in America as people sought to avoid the "end times."

There are those today who say that the end times, if not occurring right now, are very close. But I am not one of them. I freely admit that I have problems with those preachers who preach evangelism based on end times and a Second Coming of Christ. After all, even Christ said to be aware of those false prophets who preach fear in His name.

Many Bible historians have pointed out that Matthew and Mark wrote their Gospels after Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A. D. Besides, to assume that the success of the Gospel requires massive destruction seems to me a contradiction of terms. For the Gospel is as much a message of hope and peace as it is about the ultimate triumph of God over sin and death.

There are those who say that world is not the place for the church; that the world is none of the church’s business. The business of the church is saving of souls and spreading the Gospel.

Louis Evely wrote,

To believe in God is to believe in the salvation of the world. The paradox of our time is that those who believe in God do not believe in the salvation of the world, and those who believe in the future of the world do not believe in God.

Christians believe in "the end of the world," they expect the final catastrophe, the punishment of others.

Atheists in their turn invent doctrines of salvation, try to give meaning to life, work, the future of humankind, and refuse to believe in God because Christians believe in him and take no interest in the world.

All ignore the true God: He who has so loved the world! But which is the more culpable ignorance?

To love God is to love the world. To love God passionately is to love the world passionately. To hope in God is to hope for the salvation of the world.

I often say to myself that, in our religion, God must feel very much alone: for is there anyone besides God who believes in the salvation of the world? God seeks among us sons and daughters who resemble him enough that he could send them into the world to save it. (From In the Christian Spirit by Louis Evely)

What goes on in the world does concern the church. While I may not believe in the end times that were prophesized in the Old Testament Book of Daniel and its counterpart in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, I do think that the destruction, violence, and poverty will be commonplace if we do nothing. In those times when life is darkest, it makes it even more critical that the church be a place of peace and the bearer of the "Good News", that there is hope in this world. To do so we must build that strong foundation of faith in God.

The passage from Hebrews tells us something about the way we live and what we do. If we allow the world to stay the same each and every day, then we are like the priests who made the same sacrifices each day. Their work did nothing to take away the sins of their congregation; their work did nothing to make the world a better place.

But with Christ’s sacrifice, the world changed. As the writer of Hebrews points out, in verses 19 – 25, we have access to God, that we can approach God with a boldness that was not possible before. With Christ, we have built the foundation by which we can do man y things. No longer do we fear the darkness; no longer do we fear the future. In Verse 23, the confession of our hope is our confident expectation of the future. If we do our part, there is no question that God will fulfill his part of the agreement.

Hannah’s live, as we read in the Old Testament reading for today, was very bleak. In ancient Israel, the failure to have children was regarded as a tragedy. First, children were needed to help with the everyday work of life. And without sons, the family name would not be preserved and without heirs, a family could not maintain its place in tribal allotments.

Because she did not bear him any children and especially sons, Elkanah could have divorced Hannah. But it is to his credit that he choose not to do so; rather, he married Peninah who bore him many sons and daughters. But Hannah’s life did not improve, for as we read, Peninah did not show her the same respect that Elkanah did.

But instead of giving up, instead of resigning herself to a life of depression and misery, of letting the darkness of life overcome her, Hannah turned to God. Through her faith, she asked God to give her a son and because of her faith, God gave her that opportunity.

In placing her life in God’s hands, in expressing her faith as the foundation for all she was to do, Hannah’s life changed. So too is for us; when we place complete and unbinding faith in God, so also do our lives change.

Two Choices

This was a sermon that I  gave for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost on November  16, 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).


When I began thinking about this sermon I was worried about two things. The first was last Thursday’s Church Conference; the other is the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh this spring.

Every four years, the General Conference meets. This is the meeting at which decisions are literally “carved in stone.” For it is from the General Conference that the contents of The Book of Discipline, the rulebook and guidelines for the operation of the church, are decided. Sometimes the decisions made are not the best (such as the decision several years ago to remove the title “Local Lay Pastor” from the lexicon of the church; this decision has come to hurt many small churches and why my particular title is “Pastoral Assistant to the District Superintendent.”) Many times, no decisions are made and the rules that govern the church remain essentially the same as first written down by John Wesley in his “Articles of Religion”.

Like any document, it is the meaning of what John Wesley wrote at the beginning of this church that will be the focus of the upcoming General Conference. Like the other denominations in this country, there have been discussions and dissension among the members as to the exact meaning of what John Wesley wrote. And when compared to the General Conference held in Cleveland in 2000, which many think was contentious and divisive in its own right, this coming General Conference may very well destroy the unity of the United Methodist Church. I hope that I am wrong in my thought about this but I am not alone in this thought; there are others nationally who feel the same.

It is the nature of the church in the coming years that I am most worried about. I must admit that my fears about Pittsburgh are small in comparison to what I feared might have been the result of last Thursday’s Church Conference.

I do not pick the readings that we constitute the lectionary but it is somewhat apropos that our Gospel reading for today is the particular passage from Mark. For Mark writes “Many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am he,” and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be alarmed. Such things must come happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.(1)  It may be that what others and I fear to be the rumors of war are nothing but the birth pangs. And what we fear is the death of the United Methodist Church is actual its rebirth and revitalization. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

Still, I left last Thursday meeting feeling that this church has a better understanding of the problems it faces and an even better understanding that it must come up with a solution for solving those problems. It may be a struggle but if we focus on being a United Methodist Church and what that means, especially in a time when people are seeking for answers in a troubling world, it will be a victorious struggle. And I think that is the clue. We must remain faithful to what Methodism was, is and will be in the future. The question is a matter of how to accomplish this.

Lyle Schaller, a noted consultant on the issue of church development, tells us that the number of churches with average worship attendance (not membership) less than 100 actually increased during the period 1972 to 2001. This contrary to the plans and expectations that such churches would close.

During the same period the number of congregations reporting an average attendance between 100 and 199 decreased. And the number of congregations with average worship attendance over 200 remained essentially constant during the same period. (2)

That information raises several questions. First, what will be perceived as a normal sized United Methodist Congregation in 21st century? Since 1970, the median size for average worship has dropped from 67 to 55 with 72 percent of all congregations averaging less that 100 or fewer. This is contrast in the national trend which show that a disproportionately large number of churchgoers born after 1960 worship in large churches.

Second, how large must a congregation be in order to attract, afford, challenge, and retain a full-time and fully credentialed pastor? In the 1930’s a church with an average worship attendance of 45 or more was able to have a full-time, fully credentialed pastor. In the 1950s it took an average attendance of between 75 and 80. Today, the number is between 125 and 135. Fewer than one in four United Methodist churches exceed 125 in their average worship attendance.

Third, does the sermon have to be delivered by a live preacher in the room? It appears that the traditional worship service with the pastor preaching live before the congregation is fast disappearing. Many congregations have opted for other methods of presentation, including but not limited to obtaining videotapes of other pastors. This in part is due to the fact that many of the post 1950 baby boomers and their children are more accustomed to projected visual imagery. There is also an increasing affirmation that the laity should be responsible for many of the tasks long given to the pastor and clergy: worship leader, administrator, and visionary leader.

This has lead to the thought that smaller individual churches are to be replaced by big “mega-churches” with many small satellite churches obtaining many of their resources from the big church.

Now, I happen to believe in small churches. The largest church, in terms of membership, that I was ever a member of was St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN. It had 900 members and a rather healthy worship attendance on Sunday. Though a relatively large church, it was still small enough that you could speak to the senior pastor without difficulty and he knew who you were. The Sunday before I joined St. Luke’s they were looking for me because I had expressed an interested in joining. They were interested in me as much as I was interested in them.

But small churches or even moderately sized churches are no longer the norm or the model. And before you begin to think of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church as a small church, consider that we have 90 members. That makes one of the medium sized churches in this country. But those type churches are not the models one sees for church building and church growth.

It is churches like Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS as their models. These churches are what are popularly known as “mega-churches”. Willow Creek is, I believe, the largest church in the country. In the case of the Church of the Resurrection, they have five services in their sanctuary on a weekend and the average attendance for the five combined services is over 11,000. Personally, I do not see how one can achieve any kind of meaningful relationship with Christ in a setting so large. But it is churches like these to whom every one looks as example successful models of church development.

This leads to the final question: Will the United Methodist Church affirm this new norm? Mr. Schaller does not give a direct answer to this question but indicates that the combination of modern technology and the affirmation of the ministry of the laity have changed the nature of American Protestantism. Combined with the decreasing number of new clergy every year, the future of the smaller church is in doubt.

Churches such as the Church of the Resurrection and Willow Creek make heavy use of the various forms of media and various forms worship services. In the case of the Church of the Resurrection, they have a coffee shop service on Sunday morning that has to be very informal. I don’t know if they have very formal services at which they hold communion. They use the Internet. In visiting their website the other day, I could have watched the previous week’s sermon. Willow Creek gives or rents the videotapes of their senior pastor’s sermons to other churches that might not be able to afford a full time pastor.

But I wonder how in such a large setting one comes to find Christ. The answer you see is that within the scope of the mega-church are many small or mini-churches. When you come to a church like that, they find out what you are interested in and get you in a group with similar interests. As one pastor noted, if they couldn’t find a group for you, they would make a group for you.

The reasons that many come to these churches are that they are in fact responsive to the needs of the congregation. They feel accepted and wanted and they find things to do in the church. It is the reason that many of the old-line denomination churches have failed. They are like the priests described in the reading from Hebrews for today, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (3)

The sacrifices made by the priests of Jesus day could not accomplish what they were supposed to, so they could not remove sin. And since they could not remove sin they had to be repeated. But being repeated did not do any good. It was only the sacrifice of Jesus that could accomplish what sacrifices was supposed to do.

That is why so much emphasis is placed on things like new forms of worship or more modern music. If churches cling to the same forms of service, they quickly become worn out. I use a particular order of service because I am comfortable with it, as I am sure that many of you are but I try to vary things as much as possible. And I would use other forms of worship if the resources were available.

Many churches are experimenting with less formal church worship. These are informal services, held not in a sanctuary or even in a church but in less formal settings. Again, I am not against this idea. The first services I ever put together were held under pine trees on the east slope of the Rockies. I cannot think anything less formal that being on the Front Range on an autumn Sunday. You have even heard me express the idea of having a service out on the lawn of the church, though I think it would be a good idea if we waited until spring before doing anything like that.

Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the generation commonly called the seekers. And I am not against the concept. What I am against is the imposition of a thought without concerning what is involved. I have found that much of what is considered Christian music today does not give me the same feeling that I get from traditional music. Maybe others find hope and salvation in the music; I cannot. 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. Besides not all the songs we sing are that old. And besides, any song played poorly will do nothing to inspire people. If I am wrong, I will change my mind.

And finally I look at the services that are offered in these more modern churches. When I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado, I had a cross. The cross was and still remains the centerpiece of worship, at least for me. 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.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a major author in Methodism, noted that he preached at a church that tried to make its service seeker sensitive. Such services remove most of the historic Christian metaphors and images. The music, as Dr. Willimon report, was “me, my and mine.”(4) Seekers are the generation that we need to reach out to in this day and age but if we do it with slick marketing techniques, we will fail. We must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, we cannot find what we are seeking.

Churches today are like the wives of Elkanah, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had many sons and daughters while Hannah was barren. Peninnah took every opportunity to remind Hannah that she, Peninnah, was a success as a wife while Hannah was not. We hear in today’s Old Testament reading that Peninnah’s constant taunting was driving Hannah to depression. But through it all, Hannah held steadfast to her faith in God.

Because of her steadfast and constant faith, God rewarded her with a child, a child we came to know as Samuel. We are reminded constantly that it by our faith that we will be rewarded. If we feel that we must be like others who have bigger congregations in order to survive, if we feel that we must somehow water down the Gospel message, then we will simply repeat many of the mistakes made throughout history.

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. With 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. We definitely need to reach out, both to our “lost” members and to the newcomers to the community. We must find ways to work with those whom we have worked with in the past rather than in competition with them. And today we have a chance to begin those efforts.

We have a potentially new organist but for her ministry to be a part of ours, I think we need to change the time of worship. If we move our worship service back at least 15 minutes and perhaps 30 minutes, this will give the candidate a chance to get here without rushing or without short changing the church for which she currently plays. And if we move the start of our worship service back, this gives us a chance to have a Sunday school program that does not interfere with the worship service.

We have a number of youth that would and should be confirmed and I will be glad to do that. For me to do so requires a change in the time for Sunday school. The opportunities are present; the decision to do so must be made.

The decisions that we make, the choices that we make are based on why we are here today. You are here because you know from your own experience that great things can happen, that you can find what you are seeking, the comfort and solace found through the Holy Spirit. You found the Holy Spirit in a church like Tompkins Corners and you want to make sure others do.

But if you don’t, and it has to be you individually and with the other members of this church, then it may not get done. I will do my part but there is only so much that I can do.

When I teach, one of the tasks that must be addressed at the beginning of the course is the grading system. I tell my students that I prefer the pass-fail approach since it is a better system than the one under which I felt I was getting my doctorate. I always said that the grading scheme for my doctorate was life or death. If I got my doctorate I had life; if I did not get my doctorate, my family would kill me.

As the congregation of this church, you have the same two churches. How shall this congregation work to bring the Holy Spirit to the people of Putnam Valley? In doing so, the church and its members will find life; in failing to do so, the church and its members will find death. The challenge before the congregation is to find ways to make the right choice.

(1) Mark 13: 5 – 8

(2) “What Should Be the Norm?”, Lyle Schaller, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003.

(3) Hebrews 10: 11

(4) “It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003

Security in Today’s World

Here are my thoughts for tomorrow, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.

For those who are not aware, I am the son of a career Air Force officer and the grandson of a career Army officer. I do not know much about my grandfather, as he died when I was five years old. What I know about him comes from “tales” told to me by my parents and the diary that he wrote while in combat in France during World War I.

His entry for the month of November reads

At the beginning of November, 1918, the 2nd Army was preparing for a major attack on the section of the Hindenburg Line in the Metz area. The attacks were scheduled for November 10th and 11th. At the beginning of the month, the 14th Brigade had been withdrawn from the front line and replaced with the 13th Brigade. While ostensibly a move to give the 14th Brigade time for additional training, it appears that this move also facilitated moving the 14th to its intended position of the planned series of attacks. The 34th Regiment found itself scattered throughout the section.

During the period 9 – 11 November, the Division executed local attacks and gained temporary occupation of a hill west of Preny (9 November), Hill 323 (1 km southeast of Rembercourt) on 10 November, and established a line from 310.2 to 287.1 in the Bois de Grand-Fontaine, captured the quarry near 278.7 west of Rembercourt, and the small woods .25 km south of Mon Plaisir Fme. on November 11th.

November 9, 1918

On way to front again. We are to attack tomorrow. Men have been hiking all day & night, then to go in an attack will sure be hell.

November 10, 1918

Attack held up by very strong machine gun fire and a cannon barrage by “Fritz”.


November 11, 1918

A great day. The armistice was signed today. We were to resume our attack at 2 p.m. in case it was not signed. Slept in a German dugout last night.

From the second diary – Was in German dugout at points 242.4 & 365 (on the Thiaucourt 1 to 50,000 maps) on the day Armistice was signed. 34th Infantry Regiment captured 1 German officer, 32 enlisted personnel, and 3 machine guns during tour; advance the outpost line .75 kilometers to include Hills 311.2, 310.2, and 312.

Nothing in what my grandfather wrote tells me anything about his feelings on war. Any mention of death or destruction in the diary is rather simple. I think that this was because he used his diary as a drafting board. As the Adjutant for the 34th Infantry Regiment, one of his duties was to prepare the daily reports. Those daily reports, recorded in the unit history, are almost the same things I read in the diary. Still, it was what he wrote on the front page of the diary that tells me he saw war for what it was and what it could be.

If I should fall, will the finder of this take it on him or herself to see that gets to my wife, Mrs. Walter L. Mitchell, 4150 A Detonty Street, St. Louis, MO., USA? By doing so, they were conferring a favor upon Walter L. Mitchell, Captain, 34th US Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces, France.

We can have a great big discussion about the nature of war and whether war is inevitable or the best solution to a bad problem. The United States entered both World War I and World War II because of necessity, not of desire. If the world had been a little more attuned to the nature of the world, it might have avoided both wars.

In the 50’s and 60’s, we fought wars in Asia not out of human necessity but rather out of political expediency. As we look at the Viet Nam War today, we see a war that we entered because we supported a colonial power at a time when nationalism was on the rise. How ironic it is that we fought a war of independence to free ourselves from a colonial power, yet some two hundred years later, we supported colonial powers and did little to alleviate the suffering of third world countries dominated by colonialism. Again, what would have happened if the United States had been true to its own roots of opposing colonialism?

And now, on this 88th anniversary of the first Armistice Day, we have turned war into a reason, not a reaction. We have turned in what was the announcement of peace into a celebration of economic progress. The day that was originally known as Armistice Day, in commemoration of the cessation of hostilities, is now nothing more than a day for sales and shopping. It should be a day to honor those who gave their lives, yet very few people know what this day is about. And, even though our politicians and leaders give great lip service to the service of veterans, the treatment of veterans after they return home leaves much to be desired.

We have turned war into a reason; we say that we must fight in order to ensure our security. Yet, not too many people think we are safer or more secure today as compared to a few years ago. We see terrorists around every corner; we have bought into the argument that we must give up our rights and freedoms so that we can control terrorism.

Yet terrorism grows in the presence of fear. Terrorism grows in the slums of the worlds, where those without the basic necessities of life are taught to hate those who have them. And we do nothing to remove that cycle of violence and hate. Our security is not found through the barrel of a gun; it is found through economic progress for all, not just a select few.

The Old Testament reading for today (1) is about economic security. Ruth is a widow at a time when widows were the lowest persons in society. Her survival in the world was dependent on others and others were not always willing to take on that burden. Naomi counsels Ruth to be with Boaz because Boaz is a member of Naomi’s family and marriage to Boaz will grant Ruth economic security. This is what happens; of course, as we read in the conclusion of the story for today (2), a son is born and is named Obed. Obed is the father of Jesse and Jesse is the father of David. The lineage that will lead to the birth of Jesus is now established.

Jesus also speaks out against economic hardship in the reading from the Gospel for today (3). Jesus speaks out against those whose wealth and power comes at the expense of those who have little power or wealth. He also points out that many of the rich give only in terms of what is expected of them, not what they could possible do. The widow in the story from Mark gives everything, signifying a trust in the Lord. Those that only give what is required of them through the law trust more in earthly power.

We live in a time when we think more in terms of earthly power, placing our trust on that which we can put into the bank or which we can hold in our hands. Our policies and our plans seem to be based more on keeping what we have rather than sharing with others. How can we expect to gain security of any kind in this world with that approach?

Over the past few weeks, the writer of Hebrews has pointed out that the earthly priests who performed sacrifices in the temple were tainted by sin. Much of what they had to do each day was remove that taint so that they could make offerings for the other people. Our reliance on other means for security in this world is similar; our drives and passions for earthly gains at the expense of others can only block what needs to be done in the world, not assist.

But, as the writer of Hebrews points out today (4), since Christ Himself took the place of the earthly priests through His sacrifice on the Cross, we are freed from the penalty of sin. No longer do sin and its resultant cost of our life control us; no longer are we dictated by what the earth requires of us in order to gain security in this world. Through Christ, we have gained the power over sin and death; through Christ, we are in a position to reach out and welcome others into His Kingdom.

As we pause this weekend to think about those whose sacrifices on the battlefields ensured our freedom, let us also pause and reflect on the role of Christ in our lives. If we are so tied up in the realm of the world, have we allowed Christ to come into our lives? And if we have allowed Christ to come into our hearts and our souls, have we allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to work through us so that true security, true peace is found in this world?

(1) Ruth 3: 1 – 5; 4: 13 -17

(2) Ruth 4: 17

(3) Mark 12: 38 – 44

(4)Hebrews 9: 24 – 28