“For All the Saints”

These are my thoughts for this coming Sunday (November 04, 2018, 24th Sunday after Pentecost (B)).  This is All Saints’ Sunday.

Through the efforts of my cousin, the Reverend Paul Schüessler, we can trace one branch of the family tree back to 18th century Germany.  We also know that my great-great-grandfather, John, and his twin brother, Nicholas, came to American in 1840 through New Orleans.  John would move up the Mississippi River and eventually settle in the St. Louis area.

We do not know why either John or Nicholas sought to come to America.  Others left for economic reason, others left to seek political freedom and others sought religious freedom.  Whatever the reason, we do know that it was their faith that sustained them through this journey.

If there is a hallmark for being a saint, it is the role of faith in their lives.  No matter whether the journey is through time or through space, it is their faith that has sustained them.  It is their faith that we remember, it is how they shared their faith that strengthens and sustains us.

You need not be someone’s family member to be a saint; all that is asked of you is that you share your faith in such a way that helps others on their own journeys.

~~ Tony Mitchell

“Transformed by Faith”

This will be the back page for the 19 November 2017 (24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin for the Fishkill United Methodist Church.

My favorite poem is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.  But why did the narrator choose the road no one else took?  Why not take the easy path?  To take the path no one else takes, to seek out on your own, requires a faith, a faith in God perhaps.

The writer of the “Letter to the Hebrews” wrote that faith was “the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.” (The Cotton Patch Gospels) and goes on to point out that each story in the Bible was based on the faith of the individual in God and God’s promise.

It is our faith which gives us the ability to make bold choices.  The Gospel reading for today points out what happens when we fail to act.  It may seem safe to hold onto what we have and not risk anything, but we also gain nothing.  Each of the 12 disciples could have stayed where they were but they chose to follow Jesus when he asked them to follow Him.  Yes, it is risky, especially when the outcome is unknown.

The same was true for the people in Thessalonica.  They felt that Christ was coming back, and all was good.  But Paul warned them to not be complacent; sitting back and waiting gained them nothing.  Those who opposed Deborah’s appointment as the Judge for Israel did not have enough Faith in God to make the right choice.  But Deborah’s decisions and actions confirmed God’s choice.

Each day we must decide which “life road” we must take.  It is quite easy to choose the well-traveled road because it doesn’t require much from us.  Or do we choose the road less traveled?

~~Tony Mitchell


“A Different View of Things”

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (7 November 2010).   The  Scriptures for this Sunday are Haggai 1: 15 – 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and Luke 20: 27 – 38.  (My apologies for not getting this posted on Sunday).


I am not entirely sure if I am using the Scriptures for this Sunday in the manner that they were to be interpreted but, as it my custom, I see something in them that relates to what I see transpiring in the world and I want to express my thoughts.  And one of those thoughts is that I found it highly appropriate that the passage from Haggai came the same week as the elections, for there is a theme of rebuilding in the two events.

It is just that the people of Israel are working to rebuild a nation that has collapsed but I cannot see the same thoughts in what has transpired this past week, or for that matter over the course of the past few years.  People today seem to have only one thing on their mind and that is the preservation of the status quo.  We have accepted the notion that maintaining the status quo or returning to the status quo will somehow improve life.

But that is a contradiction in terms.  To keep the status quo means to keep things the way they are and not change anything; no one will improve it that is that happens.  Yet, that seems to be the nature of the political and social dialogue these days.

And while God reminds the people of Israel who the real owner of the planet is, it would seem that there are people on this planet today who would prefer that they own the planet lock, stock, and barrel.  Paul is warning the people of Thessalonika not to stop working in anticipation of the 2nd coming and I would presume that this includes a warning against hoarding and keeping things for one’s self.

History tells us that the early Christian communities were, just that, communities.  Those who proclaimed belief in the Risen Christ had banded together in common accord and put all of their belongings and goods together so that all could benefit, not just one particular person.  It strikes me that, in this day and age, where we loudly proclaim that we are Christian, we quickly tried to gather as many material goods as we can for ourselves and we criticize any attempt to insure that all people have the basic necessities of life. 

And there are those today who are going to work within the law to insure that one’s place in life is fixed by one’s economic or social status; there are those who are going to see that equality comes from the basis of one’s checkbook and not one’s identity as a human.  What I read in the Gospel reading for today runs very similar to what many people want; laws that restrict and are cumbersome, laws that defy the spirit of the human consciousness and soul.

The Sadducees want a solution to a problem that they have contrived, a problem with no real bearing on the meaning of the law they are studying.  It is not a matter of who is married to whom but whom is responsible for the caring of an individual.  The law dictates that a brother is responsible for the well-being of his brother’s widow; it does not speak to the issue of marriage in the Heavenly Kingdom.  And when you get caught up in such, excuse me, trivial matters, you lose the spirit of the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “the real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that it has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, page 35).

I fear that there are many today who are going to use the law to prevent the spirit from being fulfilled.  We have so many problems in society today, problems that require our attention and we are going to get caught up in the trivial and mundane.  We are going to have individuals who are going to work against the spirit because they are more interested in their own well-being than they are the well-being of all.  And while they will offer words that hopeful and promising, they are words of greed and self-interest.  Many people will listen to those words and accept them as the truth because they appeal to the fears of the populace, they appeal to the ignorance of the populace.

Bonhoeffer later wrote,

Are we to follow the practice which has been all too common in the history of the Church, and impose on men demands too grievous to bear, demands which have little to do with the centralities of the Christian faith, demands which maybe a pious luxury for the few, but which the toiling masses, with their anxiety for  their daily bread, their  jobs and their families, can only reject  as utter blasphemy and a tempting of God?  Is it the Church’s concern to erect a spiritual tyranny over men, by dictating to them what must be believed and performed in  order to be saved, and by presuming to enforce that belief and behaviour with the sanctions of temporal and eternal punishment?  Shall the word of the Church bring tyranny and oppression over the souls of men?  It may well be that this is what many people want.  But could the Church consent to meet such a demand?  (The Cost of Discipleship, page 37).

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would be saying today when he hears so many people proclaim to be a Christian but who seem unwilling to answer the call of Christ.  I wonder what Bonhoeffer, who gave up freedom and life, to work for freedom in his native Germany, would say to those who proclaim a worldly view of life and proclaim it to be a Christ-like vision.  What would Bonhoeffer say when he sees so many churches today who blindly accept the notion that the state comes before the church and the church is an instrument of the state?

What I see in society today frightens me.  The vision of the world seems to echo pages from the history books, of people more interested in their own self-preservation than the preservation of the planet and the people who inhabit it.  I see echoes of the past in the words of many today.  There are some who seek to control the lives of others; there are some who seek to let others control their lives.

Many people today no longer know what are the words of the Bible or what they mean.  They see it as a document that will allow them to justify repression and hatred, violence and anger.  They are unwilling to read and listen; they are unwilling to give up what they see as freedom but which is nothing more than slavery.

There is a call to work in the readings for this Sunday.  It is a call to rebuild a country torn apart, a call to build a new kingdom, and a call to build a new life.  It is a call to see the world in a different way, one where we are citizens of the same planet, equal in the eyes of God.

It is a call to seek Freedom in its truest sense; it is a call to begin anew.  It is a call that must be answered today.

What Will The Future Be?

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 18 November 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 65: 17 – 25, 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13, and Luke 21: 5 – 19.


Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, or at least the portion that we read as the second lesson this morning, is an interesting one. For some, this passage justifies a hard line approach to the issue of welfare in today’s society. For as we read, Paul made it very clear that if one was unwilling to work, then they should not eat.

But such a hard line runs counter to the very words of Jesus who admonished us to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the needy, and free the oppressed". In addition, such an approach ran counter to even Paul’s own words of joy when the churches he wrote to helped the other churches in times of needs.

And finally, Paul’s intention in writing this passage was entirely different. Rather than speaking to the needs of those for whom help was needed, Paul was writing about the Christians at Thessalonica who had become lazy in their faith. There was at that time a belief that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand and, therefore, working for the future of the church was not necessary.

Remember the incident between Martha and Mary at Bethany. Jesus had come to their home to have dinner and while Martha worked very seriously on the meal, Mary sat and listened to Jesus. Martha became angry with Mary for neglecting her duties. And Jesus chided Martha for taking her work to seriously and letting it get in the way of more important things.

But we must also be aware that when we let our devotion to Christ overtakes our responsibilities, we fail in both. What Jesus honored in Mary was her love, her adoration, and her focus on human relations. Jesus did not refuse to eat the meal that Martha prepared and he was very grateful for her hospitality. But what Jesus wanted Martha to see was that there was a balance between work and faith.

That was what Paul was saying to the people in Thessalonica. Just because the Second Coming might be coming was not a time to stop working. And those who stopped working for that reason were to be avoided.

The people came to Jesus wanting to know if this were "the end times," a question that still haunts us today. But Jesus pointed out that the signs of that time had not appeared and that the disciples should ignore the messages of others claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus warned his disciples and followers that the end times would be a difficult time and that they would endure much, but that they should hold onto their faith.

At times like the ones we are encountering today, it is very easy to think that such times are upon us now. It can very easily be a time for fear. Those who are fearful seek every sign and listen to the false messiahs. The clear message from Jesus is for us to not be led astray. When the time comes, it will be clear and obvious.

Our second response can be to adopt a "who cares" attitude, much like that of Thessalonians. But even an attitude such as that does not combat or protect us from feelings of depression, discouragement, or loneliness. Jesus told us to remain steadfast in our faith, to watch and pray. While we may be standing knee deep in thunder, broken dreams and a broken heart, Jesus reminds us that "not a hair on your head will perish."

In a world that is coming apart at the seams, the ways of coping generated by non-belief give little security. Our only security in a time such as these is found through Christ and the power that rolled away the stone at the foot of the tomb.

Isaiah wrote to the Hebrews in captivity. For many of them, the trials of captivity were taking a toll on them. "When will this end?" many of them cried. When will the grief and suffering end. Isaiah told of the day when the mourning that then filled the streets of Jerusalem would be replaced with rejoicing. No more would the "sound of weeping" be heard; no more would there be a "cry of distress." Through Christ’s resurrection the day will come when the suffering and misery will end.

For the Hebrews, this new day would be a day when they could live in their own homes again, eat the fruit of their vineyards, and enjoy the work of their hands. Their labors would not be in vain. Their service to God would be rewarded. They were reminded, as we are, that all that we do for God matters. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so.

As we come this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, we are reminded of those who came to this country, not knowing what they would find or what they would do when they got here. In our history classes, we learned how the Pilgrims struggled first to find the place where they were supposed to be. Failing that, they may what became known as the Mayflower Compact, an agreement to work and live together where they were. We know, through history, how those first months in what we now call Massachusetts were an intense struggle. Yet they survived and were able to celebrate that first Thanksgiving. The table they set that first Thanksgiving may not have been the one of legend but it was one where the presence of God was known and where their faith in God was rewarded.

As we come to our own table of Thanksgiving this week, we are again reminded of God’s presence in our lives. We are again reminded that our rewards come through our efforts to be God’s faithful servants. And more importantly we are reminded that the future is not as bleak as it may seem.

What will the future be? It is hard to look around us and see a time of peace and hope and prosperity. Now is a time when many are claiming not a time of joy and triumph but gloom and disaster. It is a certainly a time which, as Thomas Paine wrote, "tries our souls." Our actions will tell us what the future will be.

We may be like those in Thessalonica who quit working because they saw no need to continue working; we may be like those in the Babylonian captivity who saw no hope in the future, who saw futility in their work.

Or we can take heart of the words of Isaiah that there is a promise for a better tomorrow, that all that we do today will not be in vain. We can take heart in the words of Jesus when he told us to hold fast to our faith in times of trial and despair. Thus the future, the vision of the lion and the lamb eating together becomes a reality.

The future will be what we make it to be. If we see a future grim and hopeless, without the presence of Christ, that is what it will be. But if through our words, our deeds, our actions, the light of Christ through the Holy Spirit is let to shine then the future will be one of brightness and joy

“Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude”

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25; and Mark 13: 1- 8.


I had several things cross my desk this week as I was preparing these thoughts. First, my wife sent me some pictures of a church that had been converted into a personal home. (http://forwardon.com/view.php?e=Id12473ba76d0865e8&type=latest&time=all)

Then I read the report that the Connectional table of the United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to study the national and regional agencies of the denomination in order to reinvigorate the denomination. (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=7658283)

Finally, I read Donald Haynes column about ways to think about the small membership church. (http://www.umportal.org/main/article.asp?id=6081),

The first of these “notes” was somewhat humorous in that it reminded me of the setting for “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But it also struck a chord about how we see God’s House, our church.

There is no doubt that the United Methodist Church is dying physically, if not spiritually. Dr. Haynes notes that the United Methodist Church is 19 years older than the general population. The other numbers that he mentions don’t bode well for the church as well.

It takes an average attendance of 150 to support a church in today’s economy. He doesn’t go into the details but one can see that what he is saying is that many of the churches in the denomination do not have these kinds of numbers. From my own experience as a lay speaker in this district, I know of no church, including my own, that has that type of attendance. With the costs of health insurance and pensions rising, the crisis of the dying church is also fiscal.

He does offer a variety of options that, in part, match some of my thoughts about what we can and cannot do. My thoughts came from the experiences as a lay speaker in a variety of places and settings; Dr. Haynes pointed out that many of the models for smaller churches have been studied in the past.

But these models have been cast aside because the current leadership of the denomination is not familiar with small churches. How could they? To get to a point of leadership, pastors have to rise through the ranks. Though they may have started at a small church once a long time ago, they moved up to medium-sized and larger churches in order to take on the administrative roles they now have. Second, most pastors probably don’t like the small church. It is hard working at a church far away from the excitement of the ministry, dealing with personalities and situations that are never covered in the academic world. The only hope that many small church pastors have is that they can do a reasonably decent job and then get moved up to a bigger church so that they can get a pay raise.

Finally, the parishioners of the small churches don’t like the models because the models require that they share their pastor with another church, a church with whom the members haven’t spoken civilly with the members from the other church in years. Besides, there is glamour to having one’s own pastor. He or she is “our” pastor and he or she will do what we want them to do; yea, right!

This makes the announcement of a new study to reinvigorate the denomination, in my mind, questionable. We have studied the problem from a variety of angles and multiple solutions have been offered. The denomination has made an honest effort to let society know that it is alive when the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertisements were first run, they ran at 2 in the morning. How many people watched those ads? How many people would have responded to an ad about open doors at a time when the doors were really shut?

I think that the Gospel reading for today, a reading in which Mark has recorded Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, is highly appropriate in light of the Council report and Dr. Haynes comments. Now, we know that Mark wrote this Gospel after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A. D. but we cannot be certain whether Mark recorded Jesus’ words or if he simply modified the story to fit the situation. Actually, I don’t think it matters.

The destruction of the Temple, prophesized or not, changed the nature of Judaism. The Jews could no longer see the Temple as God’s House/Home and it must have devastated them. It forced a radical rethinking of the nature of the religion. The same can be said for the early Christian church.

I am not enough of a theologian or a historian to understand how the destruction of the Temple affected the early Christian church. I do know that they had a hard beginning. Jewish authorities didn’t like them; Roman authorities didn’t like them. There were even arguments between Christians as to whether one had to be a Jew before they could be a follower of Christ or whether anyone could follow Christ. And there was the argument developing, if I understand the chronology of the writings of the New Testament, about which was more important, faith or good works.

But when we hear about the pending demise of the church and the denomination, for which we do not need some expensive survey to tell us as we see it every Sunday in our church, we are hearing the words of Jesus to his disciples along the road to Jerusalem, prophesying our own doom.

When we hear discussions about big churches and small churches, of churches that can carry the load and churches that are too weak to do so, we are hearing the Old Testament reading for today. Elkanah had two wives, Penninah and Hannah. Penninah was the “good” wife, able to give Elkanah the sons that society demanded; Hannah was barren and, in society’s eyes, a “bad” wife.

The good churches are those which can give the conference the resources needed to survive; the bad churches don’t have the resources or perhaps the capability to provide the resources. But there the story changes; in today’s story, the denomination elders seem to want to get rid of the unproductive churches. In the Old Testament, Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion of his love. And Hannah prayed to God that she would be able to return the blessing. And from this story came Samuel and a new ministry in Israel.

We do not need another study. First, it is a waste of money; second, it won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to change our worship services by offering new music or having preachers who are “hip”. Those are superficial changes. The message of the Gospel is a powerful message of hope and renewal; amidst the ruin of the Temple, people heard a message of hope. But it required a new thinking.

When I started thinking about this piece, I had a different title in mind. But, as many things go, the title didn’t seem to fit. And as I was writing, I was reminded of a phrase from a Jimmy Buffet song, “changes in attitude, changes in latitude.” I don’t know if we need a change in latitude as much as we need a change in attitude.

So hear the words of the writer of Hebrews telling us that the sacrifices of the priests were of no value and that what was needed was faith offered by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The writer of Hebrews speaks to me of a new way of thinking.

We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that threatens people with doom and destruction for they already know that. We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that excludes and casts out people; we seem to think that we are the only ones who can read the Gospel message. Those whom we cast aside and exclude from the church can read the Gospel and they see the hypocrisy in our message. That’s why they are leaving the church; that’s why they aren’t coming to church.

We don’t need new forms of music that will show the youth of this country how modern the church is. If the music doesn’t move you, it doesn’t matter how it is played. And the music won’t move you unless it echoes the message of hope and promise.

What is needed in today’s church is not marketing skills but story-telling skills. We need to tell the story, the true story. We need to put the story out there for the people. And if that means supporting the small church because that is where the people are, so be it. The bottom line for any church will always be the souls that are saved and come to Christ and that is a number that can never be determined in the present time. When you look at a financial bottom line as a measure of success, you miss the point.

We need a change in attitude. I have seen it occur. I have seen churches that were down and about to die change their attitude and put the work of the church before the finances of the church. And guess what, those churches grew. I have seen churches put the finances of the church before the work of the church and those churches died. It is and will always be about the attitude of the people.

We need a change in latitude, a change in attitude. And it is possible. It is that change that occurs when you come to the altar rail and kneel there and open your heart to the Grace offered to you by Christ. It is that change that occurs when you say to God that you will accept the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and you will work to see that God is present in this world, even when you leave God’s House.

Changes in latitude, changes in attitude should be more than a phrase in a song; it should be the mantra of a church, be it local or denominational, that plans on living into the next century.

Who Shall Serve?

This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 7, 1999.  The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.


When I was looking at the scriptures for this month and thinking about what I would entitle each of my sermons, I saw a theme of service and commitment. Granted, I was also working with the nominations and personnel committee and there is a connection between what that committee does and how I interpreted the scriptures,

Congregations tend to get leery when they hear that their preacher is planning on preaching about service to the church because that means, as often as not, that the preacher is going to preach about money. For many people today equate service to the church to mean how much money they should give to the church.

But that is not what this sermon is about. The time is not right for me to preach, if I were so inclined, to do so. Maybe, just maybe, after we had determined the budget for the coming year, I will preach on the subject of money and one’s giving to the church but I seriously doubt that I will.

There are a number of reasons why I will not do so. First, of all, solely preaching about money ignores the fact that it is only one part of the commitment, you made to the church when you first joined and which you reaffirm each time some else joins the church or, as last week, when someone is baptized. At that time we affirm that we will “faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”

Second, one of the reasons given by visitors as to why they did not come back to a church or join it after visiting it is that they almost always asked to contribute financially to the church. It should be expected that all members and regular attendees contribute to the church, either through tithing or reasonable giving, but the financial committee should never be the first group that a church member, new or old, meets.

And, given the opportunity, most congregations would rather that their pastor preach on evangelism before preaching about giving, but it is always with the proviso to go easy on the topic.

Service to the church is much more than simply attending on Sundays and giving something when the offering is passed. It is about giving of one’s self and one’s time. Throughout this month, the nominations and personnel committee will be contacting people to fill vacancies in the administrative council and various committees of the church. The administration of the church is as much the work of the church, and even more so for Walker Valley.

One other thing that successful churches do is they make sure that someone other than the pastor greets any visitors to the church. For visitors to return, they must feel welcome and that can only occur when other members of the church make them feel welcome.

I am not limiting the role of the pastor. For it is up to the pastor to make that second call. It is just that in our case, the congregation must help make that first call. And I would add that when I have the visitor’s name and address (and cards for that purpose are in the back), I make sure that a letter from the church is sent to them.

Service to the church is perhaps the most important part of a church’s growth. Service is what the Old Testament reading is about. Joshua tells the assembled people of Israel

But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River on the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Exodus 24: 15)

As I read that passage, I could not help but think of another call to service made in 1775. On March 23rd of that year, Patrick Henry stood before Virginia’s House of Burgesses and gave a speech, the concluding paragraph many of know and perhaps had to memorize while in high school. But the speech is more than that concluding paragraph.

It is a challenge to the men sitting there to think about what was going on in that country at that time and to determine what it was they were going to do. Should the people of Virginia join in the fight for liberty and freedom or should they sit back and hope for a settlement of the issues that divided England from its colonies and even the people of the colonies themselves?

The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

One could ask why we, safe in the freedom earned by the victory some two hundred and twenty-three years ago, care what Patrick Henry said. Because his call for action, just like the challenge brought forth by Joshua on the backs of the river Jordan holds true today.

Shall we sit back and watch as the winds of change sweep through our society, hoping that we will be able to survive them? Patrick Henry said,

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Joshua asked the people of Israel to choose between their past and their future; Patrick Henry asked the people of Virginia to do the same. And as we come to the end of this year, so to must we choose. As you know from the children’s sermon, I got a mailing from the District Superintendent the other day. His letter to the pastors and congregations of the district was about thinking about the role of the church in tomorrow’s society and how each individual church can fill that role. Rev. Winkleblack’s words were to “think outside the box”, to think of ways that service can be accomplished outside the traditional means. This is a challenge that many are uncomfortable with. They like their church the way it is.

But in a society that moves forward, it is very difficult for a church that remains in the past, both secularly and spiritually, to survive, let alone grow. I wondered how I was going to fit the reading from the Epistle with the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today. But as I read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, I felt that he was telling those people that as we go forward, we cannot forget the past, we cannot forget those who worked so hard to insure that there would be a church for those in the future. For in going forward to the future, we insure that our past is more than just memories.

But we cannot operate a church based entirely on a fact of the past, namely, the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is proclaimed on the basis of the witness of the apostles as the salvation of men and the source of hope? A church that does so has no vision of the future, only of the past.

The church of the future does not ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, that is the cornerstone of our faith. But we need to see Jesus as the coming Christ who offers us hope for the future. Just as we can look back to the death and resurrection, so to should we look forward to the time when He will fulfill His promise to make the world a new Heaven and a new earth. We need to provide the means by which others can come to Christ.

Perhaps many years ago, churches could be successful by operating only on Sundays. But that is no longer the case. Churches need to reach out in society. When John Wesley began his ministry, there were others who cried out from the pulpit with concerns for the lower classes and the poor. But it was done with the assumption that the only way for them to be saved was to emulate the upper classes. But Wesley believed that it was not necessary for the working class to be like the upper classes; that to be saved was not simply a matter of a better life style. It was and should be the role of the church to enable all people to find their way to Christ.

So today, we must choose. Who shall you serve? And who shall serve the church? The difficult part about making such a decision is that you have no time to think about it. The meaning of the Gospel reading for today is very clear; one cannot foretell the time of Christ’s coming so it is one’s best interest to be ready. To wait and see what might happen is not an option.

Yes, it can be frightening. After all, think of what must have been going on in Patrick Henry’s mind when he so emphatically proclaimed,

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

To stand there and say those words was tantamount to a death sentence if the revolution failed. The people of Israel told Joshua

Far be it for us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

But Joshua warned them what would happen if they failed to serve God

“You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

So the people affirmed what they had said, that they would serve God.

“No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”

Think about the affirmation that you made last week. Will you serve God with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service? Are you willing to serve if asked. If you are not a member, are you prepared to join? The church of the future is one in which all members work for the common goal. When asked “who shall serve?” are you capable of saying, as did Joshua, “As for me, I choose to serve God.”

Crossing The River

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 3, 2002.  The Scriptures were Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.


Last week I spoke of how the Hudson River at Beacon gives me a connection back to the Mississippi River. If there has been one constant in my life, it has been the Mississippi River. Though I grew up in many different parts of this country, it always seems like I return to “Old Man River.” Be it through my grandparents living less than five miles from the river in St. Louis, my going to school in northeast Missouri, my home in Memphis, or teaching positions in Illinois and Minnesota, it always seemed that the Mississippi River was somewhere in my own backyard.

And just like many other parts of this country, the Mississippi River of one section is radically different from other sections. In the north, from its headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota, to Minneapolis, the River is a narrow stream that one can walk across in the winter when the ice cover is thick and deep. In fact, when the river freezes over, it often freezes over all the way down to the Missouri and Illinois sections. When the Mormons living in Nauvoo, Illinois, were forced into the exile that would lead them to Utah, they crossed the frozen Mississippi in one of the coldest winters known.

Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the river is dominated by the locks and dams built by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1930’s and 1940’s to combat the floods that once were a plague and fixture of the farms along the river. Below St. Louis, the river is the one Samuel Clemens wrote about as Mark Twain. As it flows slowly down to New Orleans, it changes into the delta country that gave birth to the “Blues” that drifted north to Chicago and the sounds of jazz that came out of New Orleans. At New Orleans, the Mississippi turns into the alluvial flood plain spreading out into the Gulf of Mexico. At Memphis, the Mississippi is about three miles wide. On a good day in the summer, just like a good day in a Minnesota winter, you can walk across the river.

I can imagine how it must have felt to settlers traveling west when they first stood on the eastern banks of the Mississippi, looking at all that was on the western shore and wondering how they would get across. Those who sought commerce on the river were at the mercy of the river, able to only transport goods downstream and having to find ingenious ways to go upstream.

But when the technology of the time enabled them, they built engines to power the steamboats that gave birth to the stories of Mark Twain and later enabled them to build the bridges that crossed the river at St. Louis, Memphis, and Vicksburg.

The Israelites must have had the same feeling as they stood on the banks of the River Jordan, looking across its waters into the Promised Land. But rather than any particular technology, the Israelites had the Ark of the Covenant, the vessel in which they carried the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Hardly the secret weapon that Indiana Jones attempted to obtain, it was the physical embodiment of the Holy Spirit and represented the connection, the bridge, between God and the Israelites.

With the Ark preceding them into the river, just as Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea with his staff, the waters of the River Jordan parted and the tribes of Israel triumphantly entered the Promised Land, claiming the ancient homeland once again. It is important to note that in any battle the Israelite army entered into, if the Ark of the Covenant led them into battle, the army was undefeated. When they Israelite army was too proud and confident in its own abilities and left the Ark behind, they were defeated. The Ark of the Covenant served as a reminder of the connection that existed between the people of Israel and God.

I think this was one of the reasons for Jesus’ anger being directed at the Pharisees and leaders of Israel in the Gospel reading for today. Through their roles as leaders and guides, they served as the bridge, the connection between God and the people. Yet they were more interested in their own appearances than they were in keeping the connection open.

The breadth of their appearance was about as wide as the Mississippi is wide at the bridge crossing in Memphis. It’s just that the faith of the leaders was also just about as shallow. It is one thing to make an effort to show your righteousness but without action, such a show is meaningless.

Instead of being the connection, the bridge that the people needed, the leaders were more often barriers, keeping the people away from God through their rules and interpretations of the Law. And, in putting up barriers, they took away the initiative of the people to seek God. Each rule, each barrier pushed the people further and further from God. As they moved further from God, they became lost once again.

Jesus sought to be the bridge between the people and God, a task that many leaders had forgotten. We are constantly reminded in the Gospels that Jesus came to restore the connection between the people and God, to make it easier to close the gap that existed.

One might think that would be the end of it but we have seen over the years a repeat of that very situation, of leaders who put great importance in their own appearance and less in helping others to find and hold onto the connection with God. It was this “lukewarm” Christianity that Wesley so visibly hated; it was this reliance on show rather than on action that lead him to seek a better way.

Wesley was one to quickly point out that we are not perfect and that perfection is a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to obtain. But, having accepted Christ as our Savior, it is our duty to seek perfection through our actions. It is almost a necessity that we put into action what we say.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul pointed out that he continued to work as a tent maker in order to provide for his own well being and in order not to be a burden on his converts. His main point in the section of the letter that we read today is show that his ministry was motivated by a desire to spread the Gospel and not for any riches or glory that might come to him for his works. In the closing passage of this section of the letter, Paul points out that the work of the Thessalonians also served as a bridge to those lost in the secular world seeking to find solace and peace. Their work also served to contrast the love and grace of God to the legalism of the Jewish religion of the time.

There comes a time when we each face a river. Perhaps it a real river like the Mississippi or the Hudson, but more often it is a crisis in life that cannot be described in any physical dimension. We are reminded that in order to cross such a river we need assistance. Crossing the Mississippi proved to be easy for the early settlers of this country who first used flatboats or steamships and later bridges. But such bridges or means of crossing the river don’t help when it is the depths of our soul that must be crossed.

Then, our only hope can be found in the one who came to close that gap, Jesus Christ. Through him, we are promised access to God, to salvation and freedom from sin and death. And once we have crossed that river, once we have reached the other side, then it becomes a part of us to help us find their way across. We are reminded that our faith is not so much show but more a cause for action. That we, having taken on the job of being Christ’s servant in this world, must help others cross the river.

Who Shall Enter The Promised Land?

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 34 – 46.


When looking at the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, my first temptation was not to do what I had done in the past (see “What’s Next” and “What Is the Promise?”). But after watching a show on the History Channel about Moses and the journey from Egypt to Mount Nebo, I had second thoughts.

In this particular show, one of the commentators mentioned that it was very difficult not think of Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop Speech” any time you read of Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Nebo and looking over the Promised Land.

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)

As readers of this blog should know by now, Memphis is my home and I was a senior in high school that spring. So it is only natural that I should think about Dr. King and the words he spoke the night before he was assassinated.

But during these times when the economy is so mixed up and there are those who see the makings of another Great Depression (which almost makes me wish I had kept the term paper I had written that spring on that moment in American History), perhaps we need to review just exactly why it was that Dr. King came to Memphis and what that fateful trip some forty years ago means for us today.

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 1,375 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) raise.

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 the words that described what he saw as the future of this country.

Sadly, his vision that he would not complete the journey came true the next day and I have to wonder if, in the forty years since that day, we have decided that it is not worth the effort to complete the journey ourselves.

Interestingly enough, it has been forty years since Martin Luther King stood on his mountaintop and saw into the Promised Land of equality and freedom. For it was forty years between the time the people of Israel first saw their Promised Land and the time that they were allowed to enter it. Remember that the Israelites had the opportunity some forty years before the Old Testament reading but their fears and lack of faith in God kept them out.

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Numbers we read how they arrived at the edge of the Promised Land (verses 12 – 14) and sent spies into the land. In Chapter 13, the spies returned with their report that the land indeed flowed with milk and honey. But they also exaggerated the power of the people who lived in the land. While two of the spies (Caleb and Joshua) would report the truth and indicate that they could enter without difficulty, the others quickly supported the initial report.

In Numbers 14: 34, God punishes the people for their rebellion and lack of faith by having them continue their wandering for another forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the land. Forty years of wandering as one generation died and another generation took its place. It has been forty years since Martin Luther King stood at the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land. It has been forty years but what do we see today?

No longer is it just a journey down the mountaintop and across the plains of Jordan to the Jordan River. For it seems that there is a chasm between where we stand on the mountaintop and the Promised Land; a chasm that once was a little crack but now appears to be a wide and impassable canyon.

In a report last Wednesday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was stated that the gap between the rich and poorer continues to increase. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that the income for the top 10% continues to increase and is leaving the middle and lower classes behind as the incomes for those two groups stagnate. In the United States, the richest 10% earn an average of $93,000, while the poorest 10% earn an average of $5,800. The other point noted in this study (conducted over a twenty year period from 1985 to 2005) was that social mobility was lowest in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy. It also pointed out that the highest inequality and poverty were highest in the United States, Mexico, and Turkey. Finally, as other reports have noted, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since 2000.

This report comes at a time when our political discussion is about whose taxes will be cut and whose will not; about whether money will be taken from the rich and given to the poor or whether those who have the most should be expected to pay a more equitable share.

It only seems fair that the rich and the powerful should be the ones to enter the Promised Land; after all, they have twisted and turned the words of the Bible to justify everything they have done, from destroying this planet’s environment to denying human rights to selected classes and groups of people. They have taken words of the Bible that call for fairness, equality, and concern for the less fortunate and turned them into words against fairness, equality, and concern.

I am not going to comment on the validity of the tax plans offered by either Senator Obama or Senator McCain; suffice to say which ever plan becomes the law of the land will have sufficient loopholes and considerations for special interests so that not much will be different from what it is now. But the words that we hear echo across our country should not surprise us, for we have heard them before.

When Susan Hamill proposed a new tax code based on Judeo-Christian ethics for the State of Alabama in 2003, it was the Christian Coalition and the conservatives of the state who opposed the plan (See “Do as I Say? Or Do As I Do?”). The mantra of the lower taxes crowd, it seems, is that we want lower taxes but we do not want equality nor do we want people to pay their fair share.

What good is opportunity for all if we treat one person with less respect than we demand for ourselves? What good does it do us to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and end with the pronouncement that our Republic stands for liberty and justice for all if we are going to deny liberty and justice to some people.

There were those among the Israelites who told the truth about the Promised Land but they were denied the opportunity to enter because it was their people who rebelled against God, not individuals. So too does it seem that our completion of the journey must be the journey of a nation, not just a few select souls.

In the Gospel reading for today Jesus reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and then love our neighbors as ourselves. What does it say about what is in our hearts and our minds and our souls if our words are full of hatred and we show no respect for our neighbors? What does it say if we are far more concerned with our own well-being than we are with the well-being of others?

Do I help someone who has the ability to help themselves but doesn’t do anything? Of course not; after all, even God refused to do that. When the children of God were wandering in the wilderness, God made sure that they had sufficient food to eat each day. Those who took more found out that the extra spoiled. And on the day before the Sabbath, when God commanded the people to take two portions to get them through the Sabbath, those who did not quickly found out that there was nothing for them to eat that day. The covenant between the people and God works two-ways; both parties have to be involved.

But what if the person is unable to take care of themselves; what if they are a new-born baby or an elderly person? Do we ignore them just because they cannot do the work? What if we pass laws that restrict the ability of a person to do things (in the state of New York, they teach felons how to be a barber; yet, the licensing laws prevent felons from obtaining the proper license to cut hair)?

When I was a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, there were laws and regulations designed to limit the ability of people to get a better education. Remember “separate but equal?” The laws and regulations of the city limited the ability of people to earn enough money to feed and clothe their families. Are we to say that things are better now?

I believe in the social component of Christianity. While there is a need for an individual to come to Christ, there is also a need to reach out to others in the name of Christ. And to be truthful, I read and hear the words of many who claim the name of Christ but do not live the life of Christ.

I read Paul’s words to the church of Thessalonica and I read about the words of a man who gave up the good life so that others could have it as well. He didn’t do it for profit or for selfish reasons; he did it because he was called to do so.

We stand on the mountaintop and we see the Promised Land. But between where we stand and where we want to go is no longer the River Jordan. Now, it is a big, wide chasm that grows because we do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is a big, wide chasm that grows each day because too many of us are more concerned with what we have and what we might lose than we are with what others don’t have and what others have already lost.

The question of the moment is not necessarily who shall enter the Promised Land but rather will we ever enter the Promised Land? We can but we need to change our tune.

As I was finishing this, I was thinking of the words “the River Jordan is deep and wide”, words from “Michael, row the boat ashore.” But in my search, I found this hymn which I think is more appropriate.

River of Jordan (Peter, Paul, and Mary)

I traveled the banks of the River of Jordan to find where it flows to the sea. I looked in the eyes of the cold and the hungry and I saw I was looking at me. I wanted to know if life had a purpose and what it all means in the end. In the silence I listened to voices inside me and they told me again and again.

There is only one river. There is only one sea. And it flows through you, and it flows through me. There is only one people. We are one and the same. We are all one spirit. We are all one name. We are the father, mother, daughter and son. From the dawn of creation, we are one. We are one.

Every blade of grass on the mountain, every drop in the sea, every cry of a newborn baby, every prayer to be free, every hope at the end of a rainbow, every song ever sung is a part of the family of woman and man and that means everyone.

We are only one river. We are only one sea. And it flows through you, and it flows through me. We are only one people. We are one and the same. We are all one spirit. We are all one name. We are the father, mother, daughter and son from the dawn of creation, we are one. We are one.

Signs Of Things To Come

This is a sermon that I gave for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost on November 14, 2004 at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).


This is a story about time. Like the Preacher writing in Ecclesiastes, it is a time of wonder and a time for thought. It is a time to consider and a time to act. It is a time to look forward but not a time to look back. But what will we see when we look forward? What will come from the thought we put into today? What can we expect from our actions of today and tomorrow?

There will come a time, Jesus says, when all the works of mankind are destroyed. And the people wonder how they will know when that time has come. Will it come when wars ravage this world? Will it come amidst great earthquakes or other natural disasters? Are the signs of desolation, poverty, oppression that we see every day the indication that this is that time? Or are their other signs that we have not seen or heard?

That is the problem. All the signs that we see and read and hear are indications of something but many times we do not know what they mean. And Jesus warns us, in today’s Gospel reading and in other times and places, that we will not know the time or place of His Coming. So how is it that others can speak so fervently and with great imagination that this is that time?

We are at a moment in time when everything that we believe, everything we have ever learned is being challenged. We are being told that to be an evangelical Christian is to be a conservative Christian. We are told that the only issues of importance for Christians are abortion and homosexuality.

But what do we do about the poor? What do we do about education or the environment? What do we do when the system that is in place ignores the little children of this country in favor of big business and greedy corporate interests? What do we do when other Christians tell the parents of gays and lesbians that their children’s sexuality is their fault, that they somehow have lived a sinful and wrongful life? How is it that we have allowed Christianity to become so judgmental when our own Savior never judged anyone? (1)

Now, these thoughts, while parallel to some of my own, are not mine. They come from an interview with Tony Campolo, a noted sociology professor and evangelical. He was the man that President Clinton called when he, President Clinton, needed some spiritual support and counseling. It should be noted that Dr. Campolo, in addition to being an evangelical Christian, is also a Baptist minister. He is also a conservative Christian.

But even with those credentials, he feels that the concept of evangelism has been hijacked by the political motives of the religious right. He feels that the Gospel message, of reaching out to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed, has somehow been lost in the politics of the times.

What I find interesting are his thoughts on the churches of today. One reason, he feels, for the decline of mainline churches in today’s society is that they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. The Pentecostal and evangelical churches, the churches growing today, are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally.

Mainline churches have done little in these matters. They believe it, they articulate it but it’s not where their emphasis is. It is why they are dying churches and why the Pentecostal or evangelical churches are growing.

Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it is also the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.

Another article that I read this last week was about the turn around of a small church. In this article Shane Mize writes about the efforts of his church to turn around its decline and keep from closing its doors.

In 1995, his church had nineteen active members. During the first year, the membership did a number of things to change what visitors saw. Some of the things, like changing the name of the sanctuary to “worship center” and creating a songbook with praise choruses, I disagree with. Others, like explaining what doxology means, make some sense when you realize that many of the people seeking a church home are basically unchurched and do not understand the Latin phrases that dominate the worship service. Some of the changes would not apply to a church like Tompkins Corners, simply because we do not need a sign telling people where the sanctuary is (though it sometimes seems that we ought to have a sign pointing out where the bathroom is). There was one change they made in the church that we definitely need to consider though; they refurbished their nursery. Those seeking a church home are likely to have children and probably will not consider visiting, let alone join a church if it does not have a nursery.

The success of the program can be seen in the fact that they had twenty-five visitors in the second year of their program and eighty-five visitors in the third year. Eleven of the visitors joined in the church in the second year and twenty-five joined in the third year. But, the one thing that stood out as central to the success and growth of this church was the fact that the church made a visible and concerted effort to build an atmosphere of prayer, faith, and community.

He does mention money and he does mention that there were problems. Money was a problem because it was a small church. But it was never a problem, because the people knew that it was a necessity for success. What they did not anticipate and what caused the greatest problem was that with the growth of the church, in membership, came change. Not everyone there at the beginning was open to the concept of change. Pastor Mize wrote that the church leaders had to deal with a lot of things solely empowered by their faith and that it was faith that empowered the changes and success that came.

He concluded his article with words probably inspired by Paul’s words today. A church that stops reaching starts dying. Faith, prayer, and love create an environment that produces disciples who live to fulfill the Great Commission. Paul was writing about those who had stopped working because they expected the Second Coming of Christ to be during their time. (2)

Though there are others today who would use what Paul wrote some two thousand years ago in a different context, Paul he was simply telling the people in Thessalonika who expected the Second Coming of Christ at that moment in time that they cannot quit working. Just because Christ is coming is no excuse to keep ready; rather, it is a sign to work harder.

Isaiah speaks of signs, signs that speak of Christ’s coming. We know that Isaiah is speaking of Christ’s coming birth, for which we start preparation in two weeks. As we begin our preparation for Advent, as we begin our preparation for the coming of Christ, we need to think about how we can continue working for Christ. How can we show people that this is a place of the living God? How can we show people that this is a place of faith, hope, and community?

We have begun this task by asking some of our members to reaffirm their membership, simply by saying “Yes, I want to remain a member of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.” Now, today, I will put the challenge to you individually and collectively, what will you do to match those who are simply asked to respond in writing? The service next week will be an opportunity for you to come forward and reaffirm your membership vows. There will be no pressure put on you to do so; as we sing the invitational hymn next week, if the spirit moves you to do so, then you can come up and will we reaffirm your vows.

That will be one sign that the times of this church are changing. There are others. As we close today, we are reminded of the one constant sign that tells there is hope. We come to this communion table celebrating in the Risen Christ, our Lord and Savior. The bread and juice that we partake are signs that we are a forgiven people and a reassurance that Christ lives in each of us. As we leave this building today, it is that presence of Christ in each of us that give a sign to others that Christ does live.

(1) From an interview with Tony Campolo posted on Beliefnet.com on 12 November 2004

(2) “Small-Church Turnaround” by Shane E. Mize, from Net Results, December 1998.

The Spirit or the Letter

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost.


What is meant by a law? What is the difference between the 1st Law of Motion and a law that says that you have to wear your seatbelt when riding in a motor vehicle?

The first difference is that the 1st Law of Motion, formulated by Isaac Newton, is a scientific law and obtained through countless observations and tests. Simply stated, it says that any object in motion will remain in motion and any object at rest will remain at rest. It is the basis for the definition of inertia.

The law that states that you must wear your seatbelt when riding in a moving vehicle is a man-made law and it is designed to protect. For example, if you are riding in a moving vehicle of any kind and it comes to a sudden stop, say through a collision with another object. If you are not restrained with a seatbelt, you will continue moving forward (or in whatever direction you were moving at the time of the collision). Depending on other factors, the only thing that will stop your movement is the dashboard of the car or the back seat. And depending on those same factors, there is the very distinct likelihood that you will be injured or worse. Laws requiring seatbelts were not necessary when the speed of the car was limited or if the design of the car was such that impact of a collision was absorbed by the body of the vehicle.

But as the speeds of moving vehicles increased and the design of the car was changed to favor lighter masses, so too did the likelihood of injury increased; and, thus the need for laws to protect individuals.

Granted there are individuals who will tell you that seatbelts are too confining and will prevent you from escaping from a car that is turning over. But there are always going to be situations that are not considered in the initial writing of the law. And there are no laws that can protect a person from their own carelessness or ignorance of the situation.

The Sadducees come to Jesus in the today’s Gospel reading (1) with an interesting hypothetical situation. A woman marries a man with seven brothers. The man dies before they have any children. According to society’s laws at that time, the oldest surviving brother is required to marry the woman. This is what is called in the Bible a Levirate law and it was designed to perpetuate the name of the man who died childless.

But the Sadducees push the limit of this law by asking what would happen if, after marrying the widow, each brother dies until all seven brothers have married the one woman and each in turn has died and there are no children. Then the woman dies and all eight are reunited in heaven. Who is the widow married too in this case?

This example was not a test of the Law but rather a test of Jesus. The Sadducees based their beliefs on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. They denied that there could be a resurrection and this example was designed to suggest that resurrection was impossible. In His reply, Jesus pointed out that marriage was not part of the age to come and that resurrection was. The situation that the Sadducees described was not a possibility.

Jesus also pointed out that only those who were counted worthy would receive the benefits of the age to come. Jesus’ ability to cite the law and how it truly applied made an impact on the Sadducees, whose faith was based on the books of Moses.

What we have to understand about this passage is that we can apply laws only in the situation for which they were intended. And too often we write laws that are meant to restrict what we can do, not simply protect us.

There are many dietary laws in the Old Testament that seem ridiculous to each one of us living in the 21st century. We might find it questionable to have limitations placed on our ability to eat, say, shellfish. But remove the ability to refrigerate food and some foods, such as shellfish, can quickly become inedible.

There were also restrictions on what one could and could not do on the Sabbath. In the Ten Commandments we are told to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. This latter commandment eventually translated into thou shalt not work on the Sabbath. When Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, the Sadducees and Pharisees pointed out that this was a violation of this law. But Jesus pointed out that the Sadducees and Pharisees had determined a number of exemptions to that prohibition, though none of them involved humans. It is the Spirit of the Law that commands one to set aside some time during the week for thought and mediation, not the letter of the Law.

Today’s Old Testament reading (2) comes from the Book of Haggai and centers in part on the attitude of the people towards God. Haggai poses a series of questions for the people of Israel to consider. One of those questions is about what is considered clean and unclean. It is another issue that Jesus deals with in Mark (3) and which Peter faces in Acts (4).

But, just as there is a difference between a scientific law and a man-made law, so are there differences between the discussions of cleanliness and uncleanliness. The laws of cleanliness first formulated in Leviticus had several purposes.

The primary purpose was to protect the people from disease. But they were also designed to teach certain spiritual lessons and create in the people an instinctive sense of right and wrong. Over the course of the years, the reasons for the formulation of laws in terms of health and protection give way to simply ritual practices with little or no understanding of why things are done.

No longer do people understand that it was the Lord and not a particular person who determined what was good or evil. In his dialogue with the priests, the prophet Haggai asks if cleanness or holiness can be transmitted through touch. The priests reply that it cannot be done. Haggai then asks if uncleanness can be transmitted through touch and the priests answer that it can. Haggai applies this principle to the nation of Israel. The nation was supposed to be rebuilding the temple after their return from exile but their attitude was indifferent to the task. Thus, their work was unacceptable to the Lord.

We live in a time when the same can be said about our society. We claim to be a Christian society and a Christian nation, yet our actions are often times unacceptable to the Lord. It may be that God will seek retribution against those who forsake His ways but I don’t think that He will be selective in whom He selects.

The problem is, as has been noted on a number of previous occasions, that the image people have of the church today is not the same image that they have of Christ. It is the image of the church as hypocritical, mean-spirited, and legalistic that is driving people away from the church.

Perhaps you have heard of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. If so, then you know that the minister of this church is Fred Phelps and the members of this church are his children and grand-children. They are collectively known for their vitriolic hatred of homosexuals and their protests at the funerals of military personnel killed in the Iraq war. They claim that God is punishing this country for its acceptance of homosexuals. Their thought is that as long as we continue to accept homosexuality, then soldiers and marines will keep dying in Iraq.

In a country where there is supposed to be freedom of speech, the protests of the Phelps family and their supporters qualifies as free speech. There are, of course, many who feel that they have pushed this definition to its limit. A number of states have passed laws which limit where the Phelps family can stand in relationship to the funeral and a number of motorcycle groups gather at the funerals to protect the families from the Phelps family.

Recently, through another freedom of this country, the family of a Marine killed in Iraq sued the church and the family. The court found the Phelps family and the church guilty of invasion of privacy and awarded the family of the Marine soldier a civil judgment of $11 million dollars. I applaud the family of the Marine for taking the Phelps family to court and I am glad they won their victory in court. They have done what so few churches and few true Christians have done; they have spoken out against the Phelps and they have spoken out for justice.

I do not approve of what the Phelps family does for I think their extreme interpretation of the Old Testament is wrong. Now, my stand on the issue of homosexuality is already on record and we will not spend time on that issue. What I find more disturbing than the lack of voice among churches today is the reaction to the vandalism of the Westboro Church. (5) As much as I disapprove of what the Phelps family does in the name of the Gospel, I cannot accept as acceptable the vandalism of the church, even if it is not really a church. I also find it abhorrent that there are people who seemed to have cheered this vandalism or claimed that it is an acceptable form of justice.

Too often we hear “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and proclaim that we are justified in acting in a similar manner as what was applied to us. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (6)

It is entirely reasonable to think that whenever hatred and violence are done against you or thrown in your face that you have the right to respond in kind. But does that make it right? Does a law, which was designed to limit retribution, give you the right to apply additional violence? It should be noted that some of the Phelps family see the acts of vandalism done against them as justification for them to continue their acts of hatred and violence. So violence begets violence.

In October, 2006, three young Amish girls were killed by a gunman. The people of this country were shocked that such violence would be carried out against such a quiet and non-violent group of people. But I think that the people were as equally shocked by the reaction of the Amish community. They did not ask that a similar fate be applied to the children of the gunman; rather, they reached out and gave comfort and support to the gunman’s family. They may have been angry, they were certainly hurt but they did not blame God nor did they seek to strike out against another person.

When Jesus said that He was the fulfillment of the Law, he was saying that there was a new community and there were new rules by which we should live. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians this week (7), is pointing out that they, the community of believers had chosen to live by the new rules and not the old ones.

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (8)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus. The hardest thing we are ever asked to do is change how we see and view the world around us. Before Christ, it was quite easy to see the world in terms of violence and answering violence with violence. But, now, in Christ, there is a new order. We are asked to carry His words into the world and we are asked to live by those words. We are challenged to live by the Spirit of the Law, not the letter of the Law.

If we meet the challenge placed before us, then we can truly begin to see the Kingdom of God here on earth. In the Spirit of the Law, we find hope; without the Spirit, we find despair and desolation. The choice is ours; shall we live by the Spirit of the Law and in Christ or shall we live by the letter of the law?


(1) Luke 20: 27 – 38

(2) Haggai 1: 15b – 2: 9

(3) Mark 7

(4) Acts 10

(5) http://kmbz-am.fimc.net/listingsEntry.asp?ID=521807&PT=Local+Headlines

(6) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(7) 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17

(8) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37