“To Try Our Souls”


This will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin for Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, June 23, 2019, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Paine, these are the times that try our souls.  We see a world becoming enveloped by a cloud of darkness created by ignorance, hatred, and violence.  And the church, long a beacon of light against the darkness is slowly becoming a part of the darkness.

Many individuals in the church, fortunately not all, are like the Gerasenes in the Gospel reading for today.  The Gerasenes sold out their faith for economic and political security.  Today’s Gerasenes have sold their faith for glory and power.  Echoing their Old Testament counterparts, they worship at the altar of Baal and say that those who do not do likewise are not welcome in the church.

Elijah was forced into an exile because he dared criticize the followers of Baal; many of us today are faced with the same prospect.  But as Elijah discovered, God is more likely to be found outside the walls of the church than the inside .  And to force us from this church means that we have more opportunities to spread the Word.

As Paul wrote, God’s Kingdom is made of many individuals from different walks of life.  The modern day Gerasenes, following the false God of Baal, will suffer the same fate as those who sought to challenge God in Elijah’s time.  Those who feel they are in exile will find, freed from the constraints of walls that constrain and constrict, more and greater opportunities to share the Gospel message.   ~~Tony Mitchell

“What Does It Take?”


This will be on the back page of the Fishkill UMC bulletin tomorrow, 18 June 2017 – the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A).

Genesis 18: 1 – 15, (21: 1 – 7), Romans 5: 1 – 8, Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8 (9 – 23)

One of the ethos of desert living was that one never turned away a stranger, even if that stranger might be an enemy.  The desert was far crueler than any individual or group of individuals might be and there was an understanding that you helped those traveling in the desert and they would in turn help you.

That runs very much against human nature.  We do not want to help our enemies or those who seek to do us harm.  As Jesus pointed out to the Disciples in today’s Gospel reading, people were going to find fault with them because the message the Disciples presented was often in contrast to accepted beliefs.  But Jesus told them to just do what they could do and let those results show the people the future.

This can be difficult, if for no other reason that it is so often in opposition to the “get it now” mantra of society.  Put as Paul wrote, the key is patience – do what is expected of you and you will receive the rewards at the proper time.

The Flags We Do Not Fly On Memorial Day


A Meditation for 29 May 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). This is also the Memorial Day Sunday.

The meditation is based on 1 Kings 18: 20 – 21, (22 – 29), 30 – 39; Galatians 1: 1 – 12, and Luke 7: 1 – 10.

Monday, May 30th, is Memorial Day, the day that we are supposed to pause for a few moments and remember those who have died in service to the United States.

Memorial Day began as a remembrance of the Union dead of the War Between the States. Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) picked the day of May 30th as Memorial Day since it was believed that flowers would be in bloom all over the country. General Logan’s orders for that day stated,

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” (From http://www.appc1.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm)

It was not until after World War I that the meaning of the day was expanded to honor all those who died in American Wars. In 1968, the United States Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which moved Memorial Day from the traditional May 30th date to the last Monday of May, which this year is coincidentally the same date. This law took effect in 1971.

We have, in our family, two sets of flags. One set of flags is used on days such as Memorial Day. But we have another, far more important set of flags that were given to our family in grateful thanks for the service of Colonel Walter L. Mitchell, Sr., Major Robert J. Mitchell, Sergeant Walter L. Mitchell, Jr., Sergeant George Walker, and Sergeant Raymond Troutner. Our family was fortunate in that they all died during times of peace.

But some families are not so fortunate. Their loved ones, their fathers, brothers, sons, mothers, and daughters died during war, far away from home and sometimes for a cause long forgotten. They came home with little fanfare and late at night, with the hopes of those who sent them to die that no one would notice.

Now, this will sound just a bit sarcastic but those who have died seem to have been better treated than those who were injured or wounded. It seems that those who are wounded and injured are more often than not forgotten, as the tragedies of the Veterans Administration have shown.

This need not be a somber day but it should be a day of reflection and remembrance, for we must honor those who died to insure our freedom and the liberties that we have. But I am afraid that this is becoming a day of celebration of war, not a remembrance of war and what war does. We glorify that which we should abhor and we ignore the consequences of our actions.

I am reminded that Robert E. Lee once wrote to his wife,

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

President Dwight Eisenhower said,

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

We see Memorial Day as a day of racing, parades, and the unofficial beginning of summer. For many students, Memorial Day is the marker that says school is almost over. It is hardly what we could call a day of memory and remembrance.

It is a day that says the gods of Baal, the gods of war and greed, are more important. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, will speak in platitudes and cliches that glorify war and suggest that war is and will always be the answer to the problems of the world.

And these words will often be spoken by politicians and would-be politicians who have never served a day in the military, who are quite willing to send our youth, our future off to war but who have no concept of what war is or what it can do. And when the war ends (assuming that it ends), they do nothing to repair the damages and destruction caused by war. And then they wonder why war never ends.

And when politicians and would-be politicians raise up veterans, it is often for their own political and financial gain, not for the veterans.

In much the way Dante envisioned Sheol as a series of levels, I am sure that there is a special level for those who profit from war and the death and injuries of those they sent off to fight for them.

I also think there is a special place for those who proclaim to be Christian but who treat the words of Christ as words to be ignored. Personally, if one wants to declare war as the solution to the problem, that’s somewhat fine for me. But don’t say you are a Christian because nothing you say or do even remotely models the life of Christ.

In fact, when your focus is on these other gods and not Christ, you miss the point. But the Roman captain in Capernaum understood the difference.

Here was an officer in the Roman army, perhaps the greatest single military power in the history of the world, and he understood that none of that power, none of that military might was any good when he came to healing his servant. But he did understand that Jesus had the ability and power to do just that.

We are very much like the people of Israel when Elijah was the prophet and God’s spokesperson. The nation had begun following the gods of Baal and Elijah challenged the people to decide what they were going to do. Elijah arranged a demonstration to illustrate the inability of the gods of Baal when compared to the the true power of God. And when it was all done, the gods of Baal failed terribly in this very simple demonstration, even with the situation stacked in their favor.

I do not know what was going on in Galatia but it was clear from what Paul was writing that someone was offering an alternative view of the message that Paul presented. And it was also clear from what Paul wrote that this alternative message was clearly in opposition to the original message. Is not the message of some many so-called “Christians” the same version of that alternative message?

Where are we today? Do we accept the true Gospel, in which we help others, in which we care for others, and remove the causes of war, violence, and hatred? Or do we follow the false gospel of those who pronounce that we are to hate the outsiders and those who are different, who pronounce the power of war over the power of love, all while ignoring or transforming the words of Christ and the prophets of God?

There will be wars that we must fight. World War II was, unfortunately because of the anger and hatred that ended World War I, inevitable. But had justice over anger prevailed at the Versailles Conference in April, 1919, World War II may have been avoided. And many of the problems that have plagued our society since then would, perhaps could have been worked out in other ways.

Robert E. Lee also said,

“The war . . . was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.”

We also need to remember the words of George Washington,

My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.”

President John Kennedy pointed out,

“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”

Two years earlier, he said,

“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind. War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

On this Memorial Day, when we pause to remember those whose service and sacrifice allow us to live free, we also need to remember the words of Elijah as he demonstrated the false nature of the gods of Baal, we need to remember the words of Paul who showed the power of Christ, and the single Roman Captain who understood that the the power of war can never be greater than the power of true Christian love.

We are challenged this day to go out into the world, not to destroy the world, but to build the world so all people will live free.

The Two Important Issues For 2015 And 2016


I was thinking about this the other day but ran into problems with my computer and lost most of the work. So I am going to try and doing it again.

First, I prompted to post this today because I had another chance to review the life of Robert F. Kennedy. This piece will echo some of the thoughts that I posted back in March when I posted “So You Want To Be President?”

The one thing that amazes me are the differences in the 1968 campaign and today’s Presidential campaigns. Maybe it is just me but the campaigns back seem to actually focus on the issues and, while there was negative campaigning back then, it wasn’t to the extent we have today.

And how many of today’s candidates can quote Greek writers, such as Aeschylus, from memory as did Robert Kennedy? How many of today’s politicians, let alone Presidential candidates, would challenge the political system as Robert Kennedy did when he posed the question to white South Africans, “Suppose God Is Black”, or when he spoke to white medical students about serving the poor and needy (see “To Build a New Community” for a link to references of that speech).

Which, of any, of today’s candidates, could do as Robert Kennedy did on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and go into the poorer part of Indianapolis and speak of the tragedy on personal terms. Let’s remember that night, when violence erupted in almost every city in this country, it was calm in Indianapolis. I do not think that many of today’s candidates would be able to do anything similar, so used to blaming someone when there is a problem.

Both President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy spoke in terms of paragraphs, not sound bites, and they expected those who listened to them to know the references that they made. Today’s politicians merely reflect the current state of learning in this country, which is to say, limited.

That is why I think one of the major political issues in the coming months has to be the state of education in this country today. Instead of moving forward, creating thinkers and people capable of analyzing complex and multiple issues, we are creating a population of followers who have surrendered their thought process to a group of individuals who feel their duty is to do our thinking for us. Instead of providing the information for us to use, this group has taken it upon themselves to tell us what to think and what to do.

Our schools transformed from institutions of thinking and creativity into mere assembly lines, churning out numerous copies of the same product day after day. We argue about what is being taught, more so because I think we can’t do the work ourselves. If we were more involved in the process of learning and understanding what we need to learn, we might be better prepared to deal with those who would say that “they know what is best and we should just shut up and follow orders.”

For me, it would seem that first, we need to be more involved in what is happening in our schools today and we need to push our schools to do more that prepares students for tomorrow. And yes, I know this will cost money.

But we need to stop and look at where our money is going these days and wonder if we can’t stop funding wars and start funding education. We might find that tomorrow will be a lot better that way.

The second issue that we need to face is a moral one. Part of the moral dilemma that we are faced with is that we find it very easy to condemn others while not accepting blame for our sins. We have ignored what Christ said one day, “Listen, you phony, first pull the plank from your eye and then you’ll be able to see better to get the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 5 – The Cotton Patch Gospels).

There are as many in the sectarian world as there are in the secular world who have made it their providence to tell us how to live our lives will telling us to ignore how they live theirs.

We cannot begin to build a world of peace when we live in a constant state of war and where individuals who claim to be speaking for God proclaim a message of hatred and exclusion. We cannot begin to build God’s Kingdom here on earth, in what form it may take, if there are those among us who would proclaim that they and only they know the true word of God.

They will tell you, in no uncertain terms that there is only way to achieve true salvation and that if you do not chose that path, you will have chosen a path to total and final condemnation. I have heard that call countless times before in my life and, each time that I have heard it, I have walked away. It is not that I don’t believe in what they are saying but because I don’t think they have the right or authority to tell me what I have to do.

But I know what path I have chosen to walk and I also know that it may not be the path that others will choose. If a person believes in God and what that means, does it matter whether they believe as I do or that I believe as they do?

What I know is that I do not have the power, the right, or authority to tell others that they must walk the same path as I. But if I feel that the path that I walk is the better path, then what I have to do is show them, through my words, my deeds and my actions, what is gaining by walking with me.

What is needed at this time and on this planet is the beginning of a revival to understand why we are here and why we must work with each other instead of against each other.

We must understand what it means to do good and how that is achieved. And let’s face it, if you are doing good because you think it will somehow save you, you need to understand that it doesn’t work that way, no matter what else you may believe. One does good for what others receive, not what one receives.

The first of this issues will be decided at the ballot box but the second one can only be decided individually in one’s heart and soul. And it will take action on both issues if we are to truly make this a better world.

“Stranded In The Wilderness”


Meditation for June 22, 2014, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Romans 6: 1 – 11, and Matthew 10: 24 – 39.

When I start writing something, I have a sense of what I want to say but I have also found that sometimes this changes as I am go along. For me, this is God speaking to me as I write. It is one way that I sense the presence of God in my life.

This may not be how you feel that it happens but that is the wonderfulness of God in each of our lives; what works for you is not necessarily what works for me and what works for me may not be the best for you.

But there are also times (and they have been plenty lately) where that sense of the presence of God in my life has not been there. Such times are times when I feel as if I am the middle of the wilderness, with no path seemingly available, no future in front of me.

In the times that I participated in teaching others how to prepare a sermon, I tell the students to look at the lectionary readings for the Sunday in question and go with that one. But I never took that course and when I began preaching on a regular basis I felt the need to use all three readings together.

And there are times when I struggled trying to find the common thread to the readings. Still, as I looked at the three readings, it came to me that I needed to look at not just the three readings but the direction they take the reader.

It would be very easy to use the Old Testament reading as the backdrop for a discussion of the politics of the mid-East and what happened to Ishmael and those that came after him. But to connect that to the other readings would be a stretch and one that I didn’t want to make.

But I also know that the skills that I have, the gifts that I have been given, and my ability to use them come from God. What did the writer of Genesis tell us about Ishmael, that God was on his side as he grew up? Is that not the case for each one of us? Have there not been times in each of our own lives where we have to wonder about the skills that we have and what to do with them?

The passage from Matthew speaks also of the conflict that will arise within families when one person in the family chooses to follow Christ. But doesn’t the same strife happen when someone in the family takes a path of their own choosing rather than one that would be, let’s say, more traditional or keeping with what the family wants?

Or, on a more personal level, what is the strife that comes within one’s self, when there is a conflict between doing what you love and what you think you have to do? Society, that most powerful of driving forces today, tells us that we need to focus on ourselves, getting what we can for ourselves and not worrying about others. And yet, there is that something inside us that tells us or pushes us to pursue things that may not have the same material gain but lead to greater rewards.

When I started writing my blog, it was with the intention of keeping in the habit of writing a weekly message. After all, I had just completed a seven-year period where I was doing that as the lay pastor for three small churches in Kentucky and New York. For awhile, I thought that I would be doing that again but it didn’t come to pass. Still, when you look at my preaching schedule over the past nine years, I have been, on the average in the pulpit twenty weeks out of the year. So writing the blog has served its purpose.

But now I think that I need to see if that is where I need to be going. One of the other things that I did with this blog was focus on chemistry and chemical/science education. And I think it is time that I look more in that area than I have been doing.

We as a people, a society, a nation, and inhabitants of this planet, are at a crossroads. The signs are appearing more and more frequently that what we are doing to this planet is doing more harm than good and we are fast approaching that time when it will be too late. We will find ourselves in a wilderness of our own making and without the capability and resources to make the corrections and changes. For me, one of the problems is that we have gotten lazy in our thinking; we, quite frankly, want others to do our thinking for us. We are unwilling to think independently and critically; we are fast approaching the time when we won’t be able to even do that.

I have said it before but it bears repeating but our students leave school today with the idea that if the material is not in the text book, then it isn’t going to be taught and that all the problems have been solved and are in the back of the text book (from The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990). But what will happen when we encounter a problem that hasn’t been solved or for which the answer hasn’t been provided in advance? What do we do then?

So I need to move my thoughts in another direction, perhaps back to from whence I came, the laboratory and the mind. But I will not leave my heart nor my soul to do so.

My concern has to be that one understands where science fits, along with faith and religion, in one’s life. And that is where I think I need to focus.

Paul writes about a life in sin and a life with Christ, two clear choices. Paul writes to the Romans that they have an option, one with hope. But he also writes or implies that you don’t have to take that option but that leaves you with sin. And throughout all of his writings, to live in sin is to live in slavery. There is a freedom that can only come from Christ and in terms of what Matthew wrote, it is a freedom to do your thing, the thing that your heart, mind, and soul direct you to follow.

We are stranded in this wilderness, wondering what will happen to us. But just as Hagar saw the well of water which enable her to save her son and go on to the future that was to be, so too can we look to God through Christ and find our freedom, our path out of the wilderness.

We have a choice to make today. The simplest thing would be to do nothing, but that leaves us where we are and as time moves forward, that means we shall be left behind (pun intended). On the other hand, we have the opportunity to follow Christ, out of the wilderness and into the future. What shall your choice be?

A Different Sense of Community


I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 1 Samuel 8: 4 – 20 (11: 14 – 15), 2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1, Mark 3: 20 – 35. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.

And then His mother and brothers sent Jesus a message that they wanted to talk with Him. And Jesus responded to the messenger, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, He said, “Right here, right in front of you – my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

There are some who said Jesus rejected His family in this exchange that we read this morning. But it is more likely that Jesus expanded the concept of family and brought a new meaning to the definition of a community.

Now, Jesus said that those who obeyed God’s will would be His brothers and sisters. What does it meant to obey God’s will? Is it how we live or are we to create a separate community apart from the world? This nation is dotted with towns, some which still exist today, where people gathered as a community to follow God’s will. Or is it how we live our lives?

The meaning of community and our obligations within a community are ideas/concepts that have perplexed us from the day Cain asked God if he were his brother’s keeper. It is a thought echoed in the question asked by the lawyer in Luke when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” It is also the question that John Wesley looked at his world in 18th century England. How we respond today will say a lot about our future as a society and as a church.

I had the opportunity two years ago to go to Annual Conference and hear Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. I thought that it was an interesting seminar because the ideas that Dr. Kena expressed ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.

Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live.

But if the church (be it the institution in general, the denomination, or any individual church group) operates more on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the Law, as long as the church today reflects the behavior and attitudes of the church authorities of two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then it will and is a dying church. (Adapted from “The State of Faith“)

Paul offers us, through his words to the Corinthian church, hope. One response to the need to live a biblical based life, one that illustrated and lifted up Christ’s teaching is the Koinonia Farm in Georgia, found by Clarence Jordan in the years following World War II. Clarence Jordan was a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar. Dr. Jordan began the farm as a way of showing God’s love for all and an illustration of Jesus’ teaching. The farm was integrated and pacifist, ideas that were not well received in Georgia during the 50s and 60s. To say that Dr. Jordan and those who helped on the farm rattled the cages of the political and religious establishment of the time would be an understatement.

As a Greek scholar, Dr. Jordan took time to write the Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English, using as best as he could locations in Georgia to make the reading more relevant. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians become letters to Atlanta Christians.

In his translation of 2 Corinthians, Dr. Jordan writes “I acted, then I talked” where the palmist wrote “I believed it, so I said it.” In 2 Corinthians 5: 1, Dr. Jordan wrote “For example, we are sure that if our external framework of God’s dwelling is pulled down, we still have a house built by God, a house that’s not man-made but spiritual and eternal.” In his notes for 2 Corinthians 5: 1, he noted that “dwelling” or “house” seems to refer to Christian fellowship and not to the individual body. Our community is wherever it may be in whatever form it may be; if we limit the form, we may find ourselves limiting ourselves as well.

What did the church authorities two thousand years ago do when Jesus was healing the sick and offering Good News to the people? They pronounced Him to be an agent of Satan. Many times, what Jesus did was in direct opposition to the rules and laws set down by the religious authorities but well within the scope of the Holy Scriptures. They could not counter His teachings with better examples of their own so they resorted to discredit him by saying He worked for Satan.

But as Jesus said, how could he be working for the Satan when what he did worked against Satan? I also have to imagine what the people, especially the people who were healed, who found hope in what Jesus taught, must have felt. Remember, sickness and disease were thought to be signs of sin and here Jesus was removing sin so how could he have been Satan?

There are too many people today who hold to that idea, that disease and poverty are sinful and those who are sick, homeless, and unemployed are somehow not worthy of God’s grace and should not be allowed in a church. But who did Jesus associate with and who found Jesus’ actions unacceptable? And we wonder why our churches are dying.

The Old Testament reading for today begins a story of what happened to the people of Israel when they decided not to follow God and obey His will. The history of Israel, as told in the history and writings of the Old Testament, tells us that the when the people followed God, things went well. But when they choose to go their own way, to be like the rest of the world as it where, then bad things happen.

The period of history that precedes the Old Testament reading is the period of judges, individuals (men and women) who offer counsel and leadership for the nation. The plan worked when the judges and the people followed God; it failed when they did not.

Now, there are some who would have us return to a Biblical style of government. Do they want us to follow the style as described in Judges and the beginning of Samuel? Or would they have us follow the style of the kings that follow in the history of the nation?

The one thing that a government by a king does offer is the opportunity for individuals to not do anything. The king listens to no one who does not agree with them and makes all the decisions himself. There are a lot of people today who wouldn’t mind it if someone made all the decisions for them. It is very interesting to hear Samuel’s warning to the people, especially in the context of today’s political climate.

Israel will get their king and they will try to be like all the countries around them. But they will lose the essence of their existence. Yes, Saul will give the bold leadership; David will give the nation of Israel credibility and Solomon will offer a new meaning for wisdom and build the First Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. But each will succumb to the temptation of power and glory and their reigns will end in essentially failure. Each king that follows will lead the nation of Israel farther and farther from God, into despair, desolation, and ultimately into the Babylonian exile.

I am sure that that is not the direction that we want to head, nor do I think we need a government or a community that is based on a strict interpretation of the laws that others might suggest. To repeat the past in hopes of improving the future seems rather futile. But that does leave us in a quandary, doesn’t it? How shall we build our community? Who will be a part of our community?

We remember that John Wesley saw people who were disenfranchised by the church but who needed to hear the Word of God. So he went into the factories, the mines, and the prisons. He not only took the Word but the help that was needed. It came in the form of health clinics and credit unions, schools and other forms of assistance. Wesley and those helped begin the Methodist Revival of the 18th century understood that no one will understand or even appreciate the meaning of God’s Word if they were hungry or sick or faced with prison because of their financial problems. So they built schools and credit unions and health clinics and then they preached the Word.

In a sermon I gave several years ago I spoke of the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who felt the need to respond to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it has become a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time find a way out of their homeless and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation.

There was also the story of the woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “What Do We Need?” – The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in my post is no longer working but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry.)

Bishop Will Willimon told the story about two ladies who started a prison minister in North Alabama that began when two ladies went to visit one of the ladies’ grandsons. From a single visit came reading classes, Bible studies, and health care. Some of the ladies from this United Methodist Church in North Alabama aren’t able to visit the youth prison so they bake cookies for the others to take. (Adapted from “Who Goes First?”)

At this point, I mentioned Project VIVID, an community-based undertaking at Old Hickory UMC – I didn’t have a chance to put the details about the project into the manuscript I normally follow but here is a link to a description of the project – “Project VIVID

You have heard me speak of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Today, Grace UMC begins another ministry, Family Promise. It is a ministry that allows up to five homeless families shelter during the week while the parents work and the children go to school. When we speak of the homeless, it is often in terms of individuals. Yet the number of families without homes is growing every day. The families that will come to Grace Church tonight are working families who have lost their homes. The process by which they enter the program is very rigorous. At the end of the week, these families will go to the next church in the network. While in the network, they will receive counseling and aid so that they can get back to a place of their own. And the children will remain in their own school.

Each church in the network provides volunteers to prepare a dinner meal each day. Other volunteers will spend the night in the church. This will be the second time that I have been involved with this ministry and I am still amazed by the number of people who are fearful of what this means. I am not certain if they do not trust strangers or if it is that they do not want to see certain aspects of society.

The stories that one could tell abound but they all center on the fact that each individual or group of individuals had a different sense of community. It wasn’t about the building or the property but the people. And it wasn’t just the people of the church; it was the people of the community around the church.

The past few months, with the Arab Spring of 2011, have shown that we can no longer see ourselves as a community, small and isolated from the world. But then again, we were never supposed to be isolated from the world. Jesus looked at those who were with him that day and said that these are my brothers and sisters.

Churches today need not ask who are the brothers and sisters but rather how it, the church, can reach out. It is not about the resources but where the Spirit moves the church to respond. What some churches can do, others cannot. But in the manner of Paul, each church has its own unique set of gifts and from those gifts will come the means by which to reach out to the community.

The community was defined for us many years ago. How we reach out was defined as well. We are charged this day reaching out to the community so that all we encounter will know who Christ was and is and will be.

What Are You Willing To Give?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. I was at Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 5: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 42 – 46.

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How many of you have ever gone on a cross-country trip? Were you the driver in the front or the child in the back seat? Have you ever been both (obviously at different times in your life)? I suppose that the most often uttered words from the children in the back seat of a car, most often yelled, are "Are we there yet?" This question, of immense philosophical meaning, is often followed, especially if the length of the trip is really long (say across town) by the most memorable of lines uttered by one sibling to another, "Mom, he touched me!"

Each one of us probably has a story or two that we could tell about a road trip we took with our family, with assorted tales of who did what and where it all happened. We know that the Bible, especially the early chapters, is the story of families moving from this place to that place and perhaps returning home.

But I sometimes get the impression that I am not supposed to read the scripture passages with any sort of feeling or think about what I am reading. The words were written two thousand years ago and they are not to be messed with. But if the Bible is to be an expression of who we are and how we got to this place, how can we not read the scripture without feeling the anguish, the joy, the excitement or the bewilderment that comes with the words?

A lot of questions should be running through our mind when we read the story in Genesis for today. What must Abraham have taught when God told him to take Isaac to Mount Moriah? Would he have been thinking of those times when he took Isaac with him to work, teaching him everything he could because he feared that there was not enough time in the world to teach him everything possible. After all, Abraham was an old man and nature dictates that the young shall bury their parents rather than the parents burying their young. Were there not tears in his eyes when he told Isaac that God would provide the sheep for the burnt offering? Isaac was his son, the fulfillment of the covenant made with God so many years before. He had already cast his other son Ishmael out into the desert when Sarah thought he, showed more interest in Ishmael’s mother than her. He may not have been crying on the outside but surely his heart was crying; one son lost in the desert, another son about to be sacrificed just to prove his faithfulness and love for God. What type of God demands this type of faith? What type of God would promise that his, Abraham’s descendants, would be too numerous to count and yet take away the children that would begin those families?

And we must ponder the words of Isaac as well. Would Isaac have tagged along with his father everywhere they went, asking questions and learning things? Are not the words that Isaac said along the way, asking his father where is the sheep, words born of the same curiosity, the same desire for knowledge that we have expressed on our own journeys? And can we not completely understand what Abraham so wanted to say to his son as each step up the mountain brought Abraham closer and closer to the test that God had imposed on him. Was there a trembling in his words when he told the servants to wait for them while they attended to the sacrifice? The writer of Genesis uses the plural in saying we will come back to you. But Abraham, and only Abraham, knew or thought he knew that only he, Abraham, would be coming back. Surely, he must have trembled when he spoke those words.

The hard answer to all of these questions is, of course, it was part of the covenant between Abraham and God. A covenant is a contract between two parties, an agreement that states what one party will do in return for what the second party will do. Abraham agreed to follow God and God would give him descendants that far outnumbered the stars in the sky. God never said exactly how He would do that nor was it clear to what extent Abraham would have to follow God. In this story, we know what God expects.

The problem today is that not many people are willing to put themselves into the story, let alone even think of what such a story would mean if it were they who were asked to do something such as sacrifice their only child.

We don’t see God in those terms. We see God as one who answers our prayers and gets us out of the trouble that we made. We do not seek this demanding God; we don’t want this demanding God. We do not sing of an awesome God but an easy God. We only want a God whom we can call upon when we need Him, not a God who will call upon us at the most inconvenient and inopportune time.

We live in a society today where our affirmation of a faith is not published in the back of the hymnal but in how we lead our lives. It is an affirmation that

I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;

I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;

I am a Christian but it is not the church’s role to help the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they will only steal anything that isn’t tied down.

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live your life while I am free to do whatever I please;

I am a Christian but I cannot answer the question of what would Jesus do today;

I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.

(First published in "When Are We Going to Learn?")

I don’t think that we have truly understood the nature of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant made with Moses, the covenant made with David, or the one expressed in Jeremiah. If we had, I don’t think that many of us would be in church today. We see these covenants more as promises; promises that God made with us, not the other way around.

We understand what Paul is writing, how through Christ’s sacrifice we have been saved, and we think that is it. Somehow, we think that by coming to church on Sunday and going through the motions, that everything will be okay. In one sense, I suppose that would be true. For no matter what we do tomorrow or throughout the coming week that belies everything we said and did today, if we are in church next Sunday, then we will have the opportunity to make it all right again. But we don’t always have the guarantee that we will be here next Sunday.

But the covenant between God and us is not a one-way promise. It contains the expectation that there are things that we will do as well. We are called to be Christ’s disciples, Christ’s followers. Last week, the Gospel reading spoke of the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people of the world.

Now, I must admit, from probably the very first time I ever heard that Scripture reading, I had problems with it. Not so much the actual words but how people implemented it.

It wasn’t the invitation that Jesus offered each of his disciples but a commandment. And it wasn’t so much a commandment but an order. Now, I grew up as a military brat and I have always had trouble taking orders from others, especially those whose attitude is and was one that "I know what you need to do".

That’s the problem with being an officer’s son and grandson; there is a clear demarcation of authority and unless you can show me that you have that authority, then we are going to have problems with you telling me what to do. I also grew up in the South, so hearing that one had to follow Christ or expect to die was an essential part of the Sunday message.

But, as one who moved about and saw this country during the turbulent post-World War II times, and studying the message of Christ in Sunday School, I also saw a contradiction. How is that you can tell me what I must do when you don’t do it yourself? For every clergy who was for civil rights during that time, there were two or more who were opposed to civil rights and used the Bible to justify their opposition.

I could have left the church back then. After I graduated from high school in Tennessee, I went to college in Missouri, following a path that I had set before we moved back to the south. It would have been very easy for me to have left the church. The decision to go was now mine and I didn’t have my mother yelling at me to get ready so I could drive her and my siblings to Sunday School. But I continue to go because there were something else driving me, not what my mother said or what my peers might have been doing (as if that were ever a reason).

I came to Christ, not because I was ordered to do so, but because I sought Him out. I sought Him out because I wanted to know how, in a world that sought to resolve its problems through hatred, exclusion, and violence, a God could exist. And I did what I hope that you do; I studied and explored. And I will admit that I have done more of this exploration and study in the past few years than I did when I was in confirmation class. I suppose that it goes with the territory when you decide to be a lay speaker in the United Methodist church.

I discovered that the word disciple does not automatically mean follower and that my role is not to force you to follow Christ. When I discovered the Cotton Patch Gospels, a wonderful translation of the New Testament from the original Greek by Dr. Clarence Jordan, I found another meaning. The Cotton Patch Gospels are not your typical translation of the Bible but one in which the places became towns in Georgia and the people were people of the South. Jesus’ parables became the stories of a Southern preacher.

From Clarence Jordan’s translations, I learned that to be a disciple was to be a student as much as a follower. To be a disciple is to show others what it means to follow Christ, by thought, word and deed.

And you cannot show others what it means to follow Christ if you are not willing to lead that life yourself. Clarence Jordan was raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. Like perhaps so many others, he began to question the nature of a church where one could sing songs that "Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" on Sunday yet which supported the discrimination and harassment of blacks and other non-whites outside the church walls.

Dr. Jordan would follow his faith and establish the Koinonia Farm in the late 1940s. Naturally, the establishment of an integrated farm in the Deep South did not go over well with other residents of the county, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their disagreement with Dr. Jordan was neither social nor civil. But it speaks to the nature of faith that the Klan has virtually died while the Koinonia Farm is still going strong today.

That’s not to say it was an easy going. To combat some of the early attacks on the farm Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some civil actions against the Klan. His brother, a rising star in the Georgia political scene (he would later become a Georgia state senator and justice on the State Supreme Court) refused, claiming it would harm his political aspirations. He said such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence (though I don’t see how).

Clarence Jordan then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert replied that he followed Jesus up to a point. Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross. Robert replied that he would go to the cross but (ah, another one of those "buts") that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but an admirer and he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert replied that if everyone who felt like he did were to do what Clarence suggested, there wouldn’t be much of a church. Clarence asked if Robert even had a church to which he could go. Later, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (First published in "The Gifts We Received")

This is the covenant that we have today. We no longer live in the law, as the people who first encountered Christ did in the Galilee. We live in the fulfillment of the law. We, wretched as we may be, have been saved by God’s grace.

I hope that each one of you knows that moment when you understood what it meant to be saved. For John Wesley, it was that moment of assurance that we have come to call the Aldersgate moment. For Paul, it was that encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus when his life was changed from Saul to Paul. For John Newton, it was on a storm-tossed boat in the Atlantic when God called him to account for his life and what he had done with it. Each of us has that moment; some have encountered it, others will. Perhaps I came to that understanding in the chapel at 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, during the spring of 1969.

I sat with Reverend Marvin Fortel that day and reviewed the communion ritual. There is a line in the old ritual that reminds us that we are not worthy of gathering the crumbs from God’s table. It is by God’s grace and God’s grace alone that we can even think to sit at His table. Naturally to a world-wise and immensely smart 18-year old college sophomore, this revelation was quite shocking. I was doing good things, I was working to end racial discrimination in this country, and I was fighting against the war in Viet Nam. How did this all not open the door to heaven for me?

What you do means nothing if you have not accepted Jesus Christ; nothing you do means a thing if you are without Christ. You can do all the good things (and I hope you don’t stop) but don’t expect the rewards of heaven. It doesn’t work that way.

And when you say that you are a Methodist, expect more to follow. To say that you are Methodist is to say that you know your life is not perfect and that you will now begin to work towards that perfection. Now you begin the work, the work that shows the world that you are a disciple of Christ.

Understand that you are never called to do something that you are incapable of doing. Understand that what you are called to do may be something that you don’t even know yet. We are not called to be martyrs for Christ; we are called to be witnesses (funny how the word martyr actually means witness). We are called to the Cross and then beyond.

And sooner or later, you have to respond to the call. If the people are hungry, what will you do to feed them? If the people are sick, what will you do to help them find healthcare? If the people are homeless, will you be there to build the houses? If the people are oppressed and imprisoned, will you find a way to free them? It is not that hard to give a thirsty person a drink; it is hard to say find the water yourself.

God reminds us that He gave His Only Son so that we would have this opportunity today. What are you willing to give in return?

“What Are You Afraid Of?”


Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (6 June 2010). The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

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Stephen Stills wrote a song a few years back called “For What It’s Worth”. Many people thought that this song was a commentary on the shootings at Kent State (May 4, 1970) or perhaps as anti-Viet Nam war song. But despite the appropriateness of the lyrics for those two incidents, it was really written as a commentary for something that happened in Los Angeles while Stills was recording an album with Graham Nash and David Crosby. ("Wisdom, Power, and the Way of Life")

But I suppose that what make any particular piece of music good is its timelessness and appropriateness for other situations. And so the words of the song, written some 45 years ago, are still highly appropriate today.

The thoughts and expressions of my generation, growing up in the 60s, seem to still echo through today’s news. Yet, while the war in Viet Nam may be over, we are still engaged in another set of wars. And they are wars that have gone on far longer than Viet Nam and which threaten to continue for an unforeseeable length of time. There may be those who would proclaim that the battle for civil rights has been won but it still seems as if the rights of any one individual are still dependent on where one was born and the social, economic, and educational status in which one is raised. Despite the rhetoric of many, the American Dream is more of a nightmare than a reality.

And as I look around my own area and as I read what is happening in other areas of this country, I sense that this country is sinking slowing into a dark sea of fear and paranoia. It is as if we are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, of thinking that today is as good as it is going to get.

Some might say that we have been conditioned to accept that last idea. We are supposed to be quite content with our lot in life, even when it is not the best. And anything that might disturb this status quo makes us very fearful and very afraid.

I am not ready to completely accept that notion if for no other reason that I have seen too many individuals use that idea to justify a society where success is pre-ordained by birth and location of birth. It also speaks of a contradiction where we say we can express our own thoughts yet are limited in what we can say and do. We speak of being able to do whatever we want yet are forced to accept what we have now. From what I trust is a theological viewpoint, it is almost Calvinist in scope. It doesn’t matter what we think we can do, we are doomed to accept the notion of what we have as the very essence of our soul and being.

It boggles my mind that we should even make this argument as runs counter to free will and political freedom. Yet, as I look around this world and see the protests that are taking place and the rhetoric being espoused, I see that contradiction. I see people arguing for the status quo while being oppressed by the status quo. Somehow, they have accepted the notion that their lot in life will be better only when it remains the same. And anything that is done to disturb that situation, to offer a better alternative or let others share is to be feared.

Look around and tell me if that is not what is happening in this country today. We seek individuals who will quickly bring us out of the mire of our own confusion and ignorance; we gladly listen to individuals who offer solutions that are contrary to what is transpiring. We hear individuals call for smaller government and less interference from the federal government in local businesses but then turn around and demand that the federal government get involved. We hear individuals call for no federal health care programs but don’t want anyone to touch Medicare.

The fear that is expressed today is much the same fear that the people two thousand years ago expressed. It is the same fear expressed by the people when Jesus healed the individual in today’s Gospel reading. The people were not prepared for what Jesus would offer them. Yes, they wanted a Messiah but they wanted a political and military Messiah, one who would offer a traditional response to the political and military rule of Rome.

The people then and now were thirsty but all they are being offered is salt water. And when you drink salt water to quench your thirst, all you get is more thirst.

I also think that there is a reluctance to seek something new, a reluctance to go beyond the moment. The best counter to fear is knowledge and it is too bad that much of the protests today are done without knowledge. If the people understood what they are saying, then there might be some hope for true change in this country.

The widow in the Old Testament reading was afraid to take on the task that Elijah asked her to do, because it was an illogical request. But it was an illogical request because it was seen in terms of the world in which she lived, not in the world that God had and has to offer. The church today sees the world in the same way that the widow does and not in terms of what God asks of us. The church’s problems, like those of the world around it, are created because we refuse to see the world in a different light, because we refuse to accept an alternative.

I don’t know why it is but it always seems that the easiest response is one made out of fear and ignorance. Maybe it takes too much effort to stop and see what is transpiring. Sometimes fear is the proper response but we still have to stop and see what is happening.

As John Kennedy said, “our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” (Speech at American University, 10 June 1963) Yet, it seems so often that we are unwilling to do that. The problems of this world call for solutions not found by traditional methods. There is also no moral voice speaking out against the fear that seeks to encompass this world. It was the church that spoke out against the Viet Nam war; it was the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Yet, the church today is remarkably silent when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The church, while proclaiming that we are all God’s children, seems to think that this proclamation is only for a few selected souls. And the church leaders of today are the ones who are making the selection, not God.

The image of the church today is one that mankind has made; it is an image of man, not Christ. But then, I doubt very seriously that many people can even provide the beginnings of an image of Christ because we have very carefully crafted that image in terms of what we want. Though many people are trying to change the nature of the church in what it says and what it does, the image of the church today is still one of a selfish, self-righteous group interested in only their own self preservation. The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago because we have forced it into a box of our design; we have failed to respond to what God wants us to do. Paul points out to the Galatians that the Gospel was not his but that is what we have made it. We have twisted it and modified it so much that we don’t even recognize it.

So perhaps it is time that we stop and look around at where we are and what we are doing. Instead of countering fear with fear, let us counter it with knowledge. Instead of countering violence with violence, let us remove the need for violence. Ignorance, hatred, fear and violence grow out of the very issues that Jesus sought to overcome in His Gospel message – hunger, sickness, poverty, and oppression. If you remove the factors that cause those things, what would happen? The problem is that we don’t often ask that question and perhaps it is time that we begin to do just that?

Why can’t we ask the question about what it is that the church is supposed to be doing in this time and place? Are we afraid of the answer we might receive? Are we afraid, like so many before, who heard the answer to “follow me” but were reluctant and afraid to do so?

We call ourselves Christian so perhaps now is the time to live as such. We call ourselves Methodist so let us begin once again to wear what was intended as an insult as a badge of honor. Or are we to afraid of what others might say?

Is it that we live our lives as Christians on Sunday morning only? If we live our lives as Christians 24/7, then we have nothing to fear. But are our lives lived in that manner? Those who wear the cloak of Christian righteousness on Sunday morning and carefully take it off and fold it up and put it in the pew that has belonged to their family for generation after generation when they leave church on Sunday should be afraid. For they will find that the clothes they wear the rest of the week cannot protect them.

Those who proclaim they have no belief in God or say there is no reason to believe in God have everything to be afraid of. For there will come a time when they will seek help and have nowhere to turn. (But the church today cannot offer the help because it doesn’t understand how to deal with this issue and, for that, the church needs to be afraid.)

But, amidst all of this, this fear, this uncertainty, this paranoia, comes a small voice. It began with the prophets on the plains of Israel, it was spoken by the voice of the Baptizer calling out in the wilderness, and it was spoken by Christ Himself. It was and is the call to repent, to begin anew.

But we don’t like to hear this call; we don’t like the very notion of repentance. We think of repentance as a momentary act, one that we can make anytime we want and done over and over. But we are afraid because, deep down inside, we know that repentance requires that we give up all that we have, to cast aside our old ways and begin a new life, a life in Christ. We like our old ways, even if we do not understand the trouble and danger that such a life encompasses. We don’t want to give up our old ways.

But the promise of tomorrow cannot be met unless we do just that, give up our olds ways and begin a new life. We cannot make the journey to tomorrow by moving to the past or trying to stay in the present. When Jesus began His ministry, He knew where it would end. His understanding of what He would ask the people to do would cause some to react in fear, paranoia, and hatred. He knew that He would be challenging the status quo and that He would offer a life with a different outcome.

We know what that outcome is; we know what we are being asked to do. Perhaps that is why we are afraid; we know the outcome. We see the Cross and we see Christ’s death on the Cross and we see ourselves hanging there. We see that image as the end of the journey and we are afraid.

But if we understand that Christ’s death on the Cross was necessary so that we could begin a new journey, we wouldn’t be afraid

So, our challenge today is to hear the call to repent and begin anew. You may choose to ignore this call because you are afraid. And the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning and the problems of the world will seem bigger and harder than ever before and you will have reason to be afraid. You will be afraid because you have no hope.

Or you can commit your life to Christ. It will not make the problems go away; it will not make the problems smaller or easier to solve. But it will take away that fear, that uncertainty that prevents you from solving the problems.

This is an unknown and uncharted path but you walk with Christ and many others so you need not be afraid. For in Christ comes the hope of tomorrow.

“Where Are Your Manners?”


This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

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Believe it or not, the commentary this past week that accompanied the ceremonies and trappings of President Regan’s funeral suggested that there is a word found in most dictionaries yet absent from use in today’s society. That word is civility.

Whether we disagreed with President Regan’s political philosophy or not, it seemed that most politicians back then agreed to disagree but not hate each other while he was president. Today, in politics and just plain society, it seems that is no longer the case. We may disagree with someone but the disagreement has gone beyond simple disagreement and is fast becoming hatred for those opposed to contrary views.

Even in our own daily lives, we disagree to the point of utter contempt for the other person. If you do not move fast enough when the light changes from red to green, the person behind you is apt to honk their horn. If you are waiting to make a left-hand turn on a busy two-lane road, the person behind you is apt to pass on the right (a maneuver that I was taught in drivers’ education to be illegal). Despite efforts to the contrary, people use their cell phones inappropriately and in the wrong places. It has gotten to the point where ministers have to remind the congregation to turn off the ringers during funerals and weddings.

Manners and etiquette, the very essence of civility, have disappeared from the fabric of our society. We have forgotten what we were taught as children about manners and respect. But we should also remember that manners, etiquette, respect, and civility is not just items to be learned; they are a part of one’s life. Things learned but not used are often forgotten.

Jesus comes to the house of Simon the Pharisee. Simon has invited him there, perhaps in hopes of gaining some insight into the new theology that Jesus is teaching. Now, in typical fashion for the day, Jesus and his disciples were walking and the roads of Galilee were very dusty.

The basic rule of hospitality then was that the host offers water and a towel to any visitors so that they may wash the dust off their feet. For whatever reason, Simon ignores this very basic tenet of hospitality. But an uninvited guest, a woman no less, shows Jesus the hospitality that the real host does not.

Now this particular story is told in all four of the Gospels. This story is the source of the legend that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Luke does not name the woman, though at the conclusion of the reading he does introduce Mary Magdalene to us. It is noted that the woman in this story is described as a woman of the city. This implies that she was a prostitute. But there is no way that you should connect the unnamed woman in this story with the character of Mary Magdalene later introduced. To say otherwise is to engage in unwarranted and unnecessary gossip, an act not reflective of one’s manners.

The issues of good hospitality, manners, etiquette, and perhaps just common sense are the essence of this story, but not in the way one might expect. By implication, Simon, a Pharisee, should be honest and good and a respectable image of religiosity. He should, by training and social position, be the one to show the good social graces. The unnamed woman in the story is first and foremost a woman. That means that she should not even be there. In this society, women and children were excluded from the social gatherings of the day. Any women present would have been maids, shuttling quickly in and out with the various courses for the dinner. And because this particular woman is identified as a woman of the city, the implication is that her character is not the best in the world. If, by either implication or fact, she was in fact a prostitute, then she may very well have known many of the men who were present at that dinner. But this is first of all random speculation on my part; but if it were true, she may have known one or two of the men present and they certainly would not have wanted her there.

This woman is forward, uninvited, outrageous in her behavior and breaking every known rule of social behavior for men and women in that time and place. But it is also clear that everyone there, including Jesus and even her, recognize that she is a sinner.

But against that backdrop, the person who shows the appropriate hospitality to Jesus is this woman. Simon apparently did not welcome Jesus into his home the way a true host would have. And one has to wonder why not? Could it be that Simon saw Jesus, not as the Messiah but rather as just an interesting person?

Because Simon is identified as a Pharisee, we know that he is bright, curious, and interested in religious ideas. He has invited this itinerant and untrained rabbi to dinner, perhaps to hear Jesus’ views on any number of topics and to exchange ideas.

But Simon does not need Jesus; he has no need for a Savior or a Messiah. Secure in his own beliefs and his station in life, he sees Jesus only as a means of adding to his own life, his own spiritual and secular interests. He can now brag to his friends that Jesus has been a guest in his home. It is interesting to note that even today there are those in our society, our churches and seminaries who see Jesus as an interesting person to know. For these people, Jesus is someone to brag about but not someone who is truly a part of their daily life.

But the woman in this story is not one of those people. She needs Jesus not to round out her personal spirituality as Simon did but rather so she can be a whole person, so that she can be the human being that she is. So she focuses everything on Jesus and nothing on herself. Her act of washing Jesus’ feet becomes an act of cleansing her soul. ("Living the Word" by Michael Lindvall, The Christian Century, 1 June 2004.)

We have to ask ourselves this morning where Jesus is in our lives. Is He part of our life or is He just there where we can bring Him out when we need Him? Consider the reading from the Old Testament for today.

Ahab is king but he is still obligated to follow the law. He cannot simply take Naboth’s land. But his wife, Jezebel, conspires through malicious gossip, to have Naboth killed. And with Naboth dead, Ahab can take the land that he wanted in the first place.

But even if Ahab was not unconcerned or unaware of how it took place, the crimes that took place were part of his conscience. We are told that Ahab has lost all sense of God’s law, the basic teaching of which is love for God and for one’s neighbor. Ahab’s worship of idolatry (mentioned earlier in 1 Kings 18: 18) shows that he has no love for God; the story today shows that he has no love for his neighbor. Because he never was in a genuine relationship with God, he ultimately loses all that he sought and gained.

It is not a matter of manners that should dictate how we treat others. For how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat God. Paul writes that the only thing that will save us is our faith, not our works or adherence to the law.

Ahab gave up the law and paid the price. Those who despise God’s mercies, who only see God in a peripheral manner, will do likewise. Those whose obedience to the law blinds them to the plight of others will find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to salvation. Paul points out that those who know the law know that no person can be declared righteous or be justified in their actions simply by obedience to the Law of Moses. What knowledge of the Law does or rather should do is convince individuals of their own personal spiritual deadness in sin outside faith in Christ.

We celebrate communion today because it is that one symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us that shows we are no longer dead to sin in this world. Through communion, Christ lives on in us. And it is that presence which should be reflected in our lives today.

We need to be reminded that we are not the hosts at this table today; we are the ones who have been invited. And the invitation is through God’s grace, not through our social stature, or our attainment of social graces. We are reminded that by our sins, we are not even worthy of eating the crumbs that fall to the ground.

Yet we live in a society and at a time when those invited to Christ’s table try to say who should come to the table. Today’s Pharisees say that because someone is a sinner, they cannot come to this table.

The room where Jesus had dinner with Simon was closed to the woman in the story. But because she was so moved by her love for Christ and her desire for repentance, she found a way to enter the room and express her thoughts. Jesus responded in kind, with love and compassion, saying, "Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you, go in peace."

In a world where manners are a lost part of society, we have to ask ourselves who we are today? Shall we be like Simon, more interested in Christ as an ornament in our live but not willing to put Him in our life. Shall we treat others with contempt simply because of something they said or did? Or shall we come to this table, with an open heart and mind, professing our sins and asking for God’s grace and forgiveness?

We are reminded that we come to this table at the invitation of Christ, not by our own volition. We have no right to come to this table except that Christ has invited us. We come as sinners but we leave as forgiven people, with Christ in our hearts. We leave as new persons, showing the presence of Christ in our lives and how we treat others.


“Traditions”


This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 14 June 1998, at the Jenkins United Methodist Church (Jenkins, KY) and the Whitesburg United Methodist Church (Whitesburg, KY).  The Scriptures that I used for this Sunday were Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.  The Epistle reading and the Gospel reading are from the lectionary but I am not entirely certain why I used the reading from Genesis as the Old Testament reading.  I think, in retrospect, that I used A Guide to Prayer (Job and Shawchuck) in preparing for this Sunday and misread the lectionary choices for this Sunday.

Also, at the time, the Whitesburg church was my home church and I was filling for the pastor while he was at Annual Conference.

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When I start working on a sermon for a given date, the first thing I do is to look in the lectionary for the scripture readings for that particular Sunday. As I read these scriptures, one each from the Old Testament, the Gospel, and the Epistle, I try to think of a title for the sermon which best explains my understanding of the scriptures. That is why this sermon was initially titled “The Price of Our Dues.”

But as things developed during the past week and as I read and studied the scriptures I found that a better title and a better approach was “Traditions”. It seems to me that the new catch phrase for politics in the 1990’s is “traditional family values”. This has an interesting ring to me, at least, when I consider some of the traditions that my family has.

We all have traditions, things that have been part of our lives but for which the basis is long ago forgotten. It is also a part of the family tradition to note my grandfather ran away from home when he was young, lied about his age, and joined the Merchant Marines. After a period of time, he then joined the United States Army using this falsified data.

Now, there are no written records other that a few lines in his diary which can confirm this story. That he was in the Merchant Marine is undoubtedly true, based on what he later wrote. But his real age (for the Army records disagree with what he wrote) and any other items about his family background are lost because my grandfather never had a birth certificate.

That is why we have to be careful about traditions. Sometimes the reasons for them are lost and we only do them because what we have always done. In my family, we traditionally had steak on Saturdays and chicken on Sundays. Don’t ask me why, that was they way it was.

The idea of tradition always played a strong part in Jesus’ ministry. But it was not the upholding of tradition, but rather the reversal of tradition that was the focus.

In the Israelite society of Jesus’ day, the only way to salvation was through adherence to the law. Yet, the reasons for the laws and traditions often times got lost in the maze of time and the result was that the many of the laws were so intrinsic, so complex, and often contradictory as to make adherence impossible or at least impractical. People sought Jesus because they could see that His offer of salvation through the grace of God was a much better and clearer alternative to what tradition had to offer. Jesus also forgave individuals of their sins, something never done before and something never thought possible.

But now people were seeking out Jesus. Remember the women in the crowd who sought only to touch Jesus’ cloak (Mark 5: 25 – 34):

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “?”If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5: 25 – 34)

Also remember the paralytic lowered into the room where Jesus was by his friends who took the roof off the building in order to accomplish the task.

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard the he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door , and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bring to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowed, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and , after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2: 1 – 5)

People sought out Jesus because they knew that He did offer an alternative to the life that society was forcing them to accept. It may have been out of curiosity or it may have been an attempt to entrap him that Simon the Pharisee asked Jesus to come to his house for dinner, as we read in today’s Gospel reading.

Now, at a traditional dinner, it was the host’s responsibility to provide water so that the guests could wash their feet. It is clear from Jesus’ comments

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

that Simon didn’t do this nor had he offered the traditional greeting kiss or perfume usually offered to the honored guest.

And the presence of this woman was also very much against tradition. Normally, the only women present at such a dinner would have been the servants and this woman, with her social status, would have never been allowed inside the room. Yet she was there, unveiled and with her hair down, both non-traditional, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears.

As he had done before, Jesus forgave this woman of her sins, not because she was washing his feet but because her faith was strong enough to overcome the resistance of society. Needless to say, the other guests, with their view of life tied to the traditional ways, were shocked.

But why should they be shocked? After all, in an ironic twist, most of those people present probably were aware of what had happened between Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac.

The Old Testament reading for today, Genesis 25: 19 – 34, tells the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac. Esau grew up and became a skillful hunter but one day, after an apparently unsuccessful hunting trip, he came home starving.

He was so hungry that he begged his brother Jacob for something to eat. In reply, Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright. In traditional society, the birthright included the inheritance rights for the first-born. And in Esau’s case, such inheritance included the covenant promises of a mighty nation that Isaac, his father, had inherited from his father Abraham. Some would say that Jacob was a schemer and a trickster to but it was by God’s choice that he, Jacob, came to own the birthright of the Israelite nation. Had God chosen to follow tradition, then it would have been Esau that would have been the father of the Israelite nation but that was not to be the case and, and in the end, Esau was left with nothing.

God’s plan for us is not based on tradition. Nor is it so rigid a plan that it can never offer any hope. If God’s will as strict as the law, then there would be no need for salvation because, once we have broken the law, we would have died in sin. As Paul wrote As he wrote in Galatians 2: 21, “I do not set aside the graced of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2: 21)

That is why God sent Jesus for us. Because God wanted to show everyone that it wasn’t tradition that promised salvation but God’s grace. Time and time again, Paul writes that is by our faith in Jesus that we are saved, not by our following the laws and traditions. For us today, the path to salvation is through Christ. Yes, we need to live a godly life; yes, we need to follow the law, both spiritual and man-made. But until such time as we accept Christ as our own personal savior, nothing is accomplished.

What saves us is not our adherence to a rigid code of laws or traditions whose origins are lost in time; it is our faith in Christ. The woman in the Gospel reading today was forgiven, the woman in the crowd and the paralyzed man were all healed not because of anything they did but because of their faith. The tears the woman shed as she washed Jesus’ feet that day were tears of joy, of knowing that she was forgiven.

For us, it is the same. As we go through life, facing each uncertain day, remember the third verse of “Amazing Grace” , “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

In 1 John 4, John writes of discerning from whom life’s instructions come; to make sure that what you hear comes from God and not some where else. It is tempting in life to see the path to take as a series of laws and traditions but in trying to stay on that path we often stumble. Yet, when we accept Christ as our Savior, when we understand that it is our faith in Christ that our sins are forgiven, the path becomes an easy one and a more fruitful one.