This will be the back page for the January 14, 2018 bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  It is based on the readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B)

As a teacher of chemistry, the one thing I try to do, besides helping students understand chemistry, is also learn how to think and solve problems outside the realm of the classroom.

This approach does not go well in an environment where today is important, and tomorrow will be dealt with at the appropriate time.  Still, if you don’t have the skills to go along with the subject matter, you will know a lot of information, but you won’t know what to do with it.

Nathaniel was the scholar of the Twelve, always studying the Scriptures for signs of the coming Messiah.  He had concluded that nothing good would come out of Nazareth.  But such an approach did not allow for alternatives.  Jesus was also a student of the Scriptures, but they were the basis for a new message and a means to see the world differently.

We all start with a basic knowledge of God and the world around us.  But this knowledge can be very limited if we do nothing with it.

That is what Jesus did, and what He taught the Twelve to do; take the lessons learned from the Scriptures out of the Temple and give them to the people, all the people, including the ones excluded by the religious and political establishment.

Yes, this will take us out of our comfort zone, but the Scripture message given by Jesus and based on the Scriptures was not meant to stay behind the walls of the Temple.  It was meant to be with and for the people.  Our task this day is to not just learn the Scriptures but to find ways to make them meaningful in today’s world.                          ~ Tony Mitchell


How Do We Do It

A Meditation for 17 January 2016, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), based on Isaiah 62: 1 – 5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11

I personally believe that today’s Gospel reading illustrates or typifies the problem with Christianity today.

There are those who feel that we should take what is written in the Bible as it is and ask no questions about it. Their reasoning is two-fold. First, these individuals hold the view that the words of the Bible are fixed and unchanging so no questions can be asked; what you see is, if you will, what you get. Second, to question the words of the Bible is to question one’s faith and that is a sign of weakness.

Of course, as you all are well aware, I don’t subscribe to either view. First, I see questions of faith as part of the faith-building process and part of human nature in general. If you do not ask questions, you cannot begin to understand what is taking place. And there will come a time when, because you do not understand, you will be unable to answer questions about your faith when others ask you to do so.

As to the unchanging nature of the Bible or that it was somehow dictated by God directly, how do we explain those scriptures that are not part of the accepted canon, of which I will mention something in a moment?

But let’s begin by asking some questions about the situation in the Gospel reading. What is, if you will, the back story about this passage?

Why were Jesus, his disciples, and his mother, Mary, at the wedding in the first place? And why did Mary command, not ask, Jesus to solve the wine problem? One possible answer would be that they all were invited to be there, perhaps because it was a relative of theirs.

But I don’t think that answer answers the second question as to the wine problem. Perhaps they all were at the wedding because, as some have suggested, it was Jesus’ wedding and he was marrying his girlfriend, Mary Magdalene. Now, this is all speculation because there is no evidence in any of the accepted Gospels or any of the other non-canonical literature to support this idea. In fact, if I am not mistaken, this is a relatively new idea, brought forth from more sectarian literature than anything else.

But with Mary telling Jesus to solve the wine problem and also telling the caterers (who else would they have been) to listen to Jesus, we can assume that they are more involved with the wedding than simply being guests of either the bride or the groom.

Now, what did Mary expect Jesus to do? There are some scripture writings (such as “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas”) which tried to fill in the gaps between Jesus’ birth and his appearance in the Temple when he was twelve. In these writings, we read of a young Jesus just learning who He is and what He can do. And we note that Mary found Jesus in the Temple when He was twelve, she kept in her memory all the things that He had said and done. So it would have been quite easy for her to ask Him to solve the wine problem, even if it were not what He might have preferred to have done.

In the end, no matter what the back story might have been, we know that Mary had confidence that her son had the skills, talents, and abilities to solve a minor problem as the lack of wine at the wedding.

And that is where we find ourselves at times. Faced with many problems, ranging from the mundane to the major, we wonder how we will be able to resolve them.

There is a hymn that tells us to turn our eyes upon Jesus in times of trouble and need. But we have to understand that if Christ is not a part of our lives before the trouble comes, we are going to have an awfully difficult time of finding Him when it does come. We have done a great job of putting Jesus (and God) in the storage closet, to be brought out for those special occasions and when we need Him the most.

This is fundamentally a reversal of our relationship with Jesus, and through Him, our relationship with God. And in the end that will never work.

If God were to only appear when we needed Him the most, in our crisis and when we are weakest, we will quickly find Him of little use. We have to see and seek God who comes to us in the midst of our life at those times we are most confident in our own abilities (adapted from Faith in a Secular Age, page 41).

And from whence, perhaps do we get those abilities? In his notes to the Corinthians, Paul talks about God wanting us to the intelligence He gave us. He points out that there are a variety of ways in which we can apply that intelligence. And we must do that if we are to read, as Christ so often commanded us, the signs of the times.

We cannot project our own self-history into our actions and expect to do God’s will. Throughout history, there have been countless examples of individuals presenting their own view of the world as God’s view. At the beginning of World War I, both sides proclaimed that God was on their side. During John Wesley’s time, countless sermons showed real concern for the plight of the working and lower classes; yet salvation for them could only occur if they were somehow part of the upper class. We perhaps would call that the prosperity gospel today.

The call for renewal and revival is not about what we want to do but what we are called to do. We are called by Christ to follow Him, wherever that may lead us. That which we seek we find in Christ, not in this world.

And we begin the revival by looking at what we can do with the gifts that God has given us through our relationship with Christ, a relationship filled with the joy that Isaiah described.

“A Moral Imperative”

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 19 January 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42. This is also Human Relations Sunday.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am Southern born and Southern bred and when I die I will be Southern dead. I am also the son of an Air Force officer and the grandson of an Army officer. As a result, though I was born in Virginia, I grew up in a variety of states and have worked in another group of states. All together, this combination provides for a unique view of society and the world; a view that does not hold to many of the traditions so often associated with the South.

You cannot expect someone who attended as many elementary, junior high and high schools as I did to not wonder why the rules at one school in one state are so dramatically different from the rules of another school in another state. Why is that every kid can go to the same school in Colorado but some kids have to go to one school in Alabama while other kids of the same age have to go to another one? Why is that high school bands in Colorado and Missouri had ample funds (at least, back when I went to school) but high school bands in Tennessee had to scrap for funds? Somewhere along the way, as I was growing up in Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, and Tennessee, I began to question certain aspects of society in terms of economics and race. There are questions that still need to be asked today and have expanded way beyond what they were in the 1960s.

Now, you have to know that my parents were very conservative and this questioning attitude and the actions that I undertook to answer my questions did not always set well with them. But they raised my siblings and myself to think and act independently and to know that 1) we were responsible for our actions, whatever the result, and 2) we would be loved no matter what. And over time, their conservatism mellowed and the views on war and equality began to change.

The Old Testament and Epistle readings for today speak to much of what I feel today. The Old Testament reading speaks of Isaiah seeing no value to the work that he has done at the local level but God telling him, in essence, to look beyond the horizon and see a bigger picture and know that his work does have some impact. Paul speaks of the gifts that God has given each one of us.

I know that the gifts and skills that I have are from God and I know that I have not always used them in the way that best serves God. There are times when it has been clear that my gifts and talents have been squandered and I have not done what needed to be done.

But I know that I have heard, in several different ways, the call to go out into the word and do the work of God. It requires seeing each person, no matter who they are, not in the context of their local setting but as members of God’s Kingdom and as such (and to borrow words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), measured by the content of their character and nothing else, not their race, their economic status, their sexuality, or place in life.

And while I may see the impact of the words of Isaiah and Paul in terms of my own life, I know that they are words spoken to each person on this planet, whomever they may be. Granted, it means that I, along with others, have to tell the people what those words are. It does not mean that those who hear those words must accept them but you cannot determine the path that you wish to walk if you do not know what lies ahead.

We live in a day and age where greed, violence, hatred, and war are commonplace occurrences and where the response to each of these plagues on science is often times more of the same. The Gospel message that offers promise, hope, and freedom is often times cast aside as meaningless and without substance.

The problem is that too many times those who often so proclaim themselves as followers of Christ are among the leaders who promote hatred, greed, violence and war. They do so because 1) they see only the present and the local, not the future and the world; and 2) because that’s the way they have been taught.

And when the time comes they teach what they know without seeing alternatives or options; they have no desire to see beyond their own limits. And one cannot often blame them, for when you teach others to think beyond the present, to think of the future and what might happen, you give them the chance to change the world. And changing the world today is a threat to those in power. 

And if nothing else and whatever the cost, we have to begin changing the world, both in terms of what is done, what is to be done, and how we teach the world.  This is a very frightening thought because it goes against almost everything done up to this part.  In fact, it goes against everything we have been taught but what we have been taught and what are children are being taught is designed to keep those who have the power in power and not open up the horizons of life.

In today’s Gospel reading, there is a transfer of power from the prophecy of John the Baptist to the mission of Jesus. But it is also about what happens to us when we meet Jesus Christ for the first time. Simon, brother of Andrew, comes to Jesus but leaves as Peter, the Rock upon whom the church will be built. Meeting Jesus is a life changing moment. When we meet Jesus, our names may remain the same but our lives do not. We cannot expect that what we will tomorrow to be the same that we did yesterday.

When I selected the title for this piece, it was with the assumption that it had been used at some time in the past. And while it had been used, it was not by the individuals that I thought would have used it. I thought of John Kennedy’s comments concerning the need for a comprehensive civil rights bill in the 1960s and I thought about what Dr. King had said on any number of occasions but neither used the term that I had selected.

I am reminded of the words that Senator Edward Kennedy spoke at his brother’s, Robert Kennedy, funeral, “of how he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

There is a moral imperative in our lives today; it is that yearning in our soul to make sure that all of the people of this world are free and treated equally, that war and violence, poverty and hunger have no place on this planet and that the change that must be made begin with each one of us.

There may be a few who read these words and say that there is no God, there is no Christ, and they will have to determine where that call for justice comes from if it does not come from God through Christ. But I believe that call comes from God and that I have to answer it as such. And I have made my choice to follow Christ and seek to do what I can in His Name to make sure that Gospel message is fulfilled.

The challenge for each one of us is find ways, individually and collectively, to do the same.

Saturday Morning Worship @ Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

During the 2012 Advent season, we began a worship service prior to breakfast. As the New Year begins, we are going to continue this worship. If you are interested in participating in the worship service, contact me at TonyMitchellPhD (at) optimum.net. I have included the lectionary readings for the Sundays in January so that you can think about this. Because of the time frame, we ask that you pick one of the lectionary readings and prepare your message on that reading. Looking forward to hearing the many voices of United Methodists during 2013 at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Oh, and you get breakfast

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 for soup, bread, and other “goodies”. Come and join us in friendship and fellowship at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

Worship from 8 to 8:30; Breakfast from 8:30 to 9:45

January 5th – Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 12th – Baptism of the Lord – Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22

January 19th – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany – Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11; John 2: 1 – 11

A New Understanding” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

January 26th – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; Luke 4: 14 – 21

Parts of the Church” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

A Matter of Identity

I got a note on Thursday about the possibility of being in the pulpit this Sunday. So I prepared this message. It turned out that I wasn’t needed after all. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10, 10 – 20; 1 Corinthians 6: 12 -20; and John 1: 43 – 51.

There is a certain degree of symmetry, if you will, in the Scripture readings for today. For as a boy of twelve, I heard God calling me. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that it was God for it sure felt like my mother’s elbow jabbing me in the side to keep me awake during the sermon. But the message that I received suggested something else.

And when my family moved that summer that I was twelve from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, I made the decision to pursue the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. In about four weeks, when it is Boy Scout Sunday, I will post some thoughts about that award and what it meant to me then and still does today. But the symmetry isn’t about the call that a boy of twelve received some fifty years ago; it is about the call that boy received a few years ago.

One of the things that I have done over the past few years is “borrow” tricks and techniques from some of the pastors I have worked with and whom I may call friends. Sometimes it is the inclusion of song in the sermon; sometimes it is the use of my background in chemistry and science education. Acouple of years ago, following the lead of a friend, I began to explore creating pieces that centered around Nathaniel Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples and the center of today’s Gospel reading. When I began looking at the history and tradition of this individual, initially skeptical that Jesus was the One and True Messiah, I felt that I had made the right choice.

For Nathaniel Bartholomew (he is identified as Nathaniel in John and Bartholomew in Matthew; we assume that they are the same individual) was the scholar of the group and the one who would go to Georgia to carry the Gospel message to the world. Since I too am a scholar and one who grew up in the South, it made sense to find ways to use Nathaniel Bartholomew in my preaching persona. And while the Georgia that he would travel to was not the Georgia that John Wesley would visit; it should not take much of a leap for a southern boy such as me to put the two places together.

As the saying goes, I am southern born and I am southern bred and when I die I shall be southern dead. But just because I grew up in the south and was raised by a southern born mother, do not presume that I hold to many of the traditions and characterizations that come with the southern label. One of the things that one has to know is that church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began to think about my identity in and with God was a Methodist Church and one of the better known members of that congregation was George Wallace, then governor of Alabama and in the process of putting his stamp on American politics.

For me to say that I am a Southern boy may cause some to think of one of many stereotypes. I will be honest; I could easily be like so many of my classmates of that time and era who still hold on to a view of the world in which one’s identity is predicated on one’s birthplace. But I grew up in more than one place and it allowed me to see the world in many different ways, ways that would allow me to pursue an identity that is my own and not the product of a time or place.

It does not help that I consider my home town to be Memphis, Tennessee. For some, it comes as quite a shock when they find out that I have really never been to Graceland. It strikes many that anyone from Memphis would naturally have been to Graceland at least one and perhaps twice a year. But, while I may appreciate Elvis for his music, and I do know where Graceland is (having been by it on a number of occasions), such is not sufficient for me to visit. Besides at something like $30.00 per ticket, it is not something I can afford to do.

The first thing that Nathaniel Bartholomew said when Philip told him about Jesus was, “what good can come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was never the place to be from and it certainly never fit into what the prophets were saying. Nathaniel’s response was the normal response.

But Jesus changed Nathaniel’s view when Jesus told him that He, Jesus, had seen him, Nathaniel, under the fig tree. Tradition has it that Nathaniel was reading and studying the Scripture so that he would know what to expect when the Messiah did come. Of course, the Messiah’s arrival was not what he expected but then again no one expected Jesus to be the Messiah at first. Jesus looked at who Nathaniel was, not what he was.

And on this weekend, I cannot help but remember that I was a senior in high school the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Nor can I forget that he came to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and, more importantly, for recognition that they deserved better working conditions as well. There was in this country back then, and is still persistent today, a perception that because someone is of a particular race or economic status then they are not worthy of equality. (My thoughts on this date in history are found at “Where Were You on April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day“)

We have in this country an assumption even today that the poor are shiftless and while we should give them something to eat, we better not give them the “good stuff.” And we best not put out our fine china and good silverware because they are only going to steal it. It would be better if we simply gave them something second class and act as if we were doing them a favor. And yet, what did Jesus say about this? Who would Jesus have invited to dinner? It amazes me when someone tastes the food that my wife prepares for the breakfasts that we host on Saturday and Sunday morning and finds out that this is the food the “poor” people eat. I hate to say it but I am utterly but not completely surprised when someone acts as if the world is coming to an end because we are willing to give a good meal to a homeless person instead of just slopping something on a paper plate and expecting them to like it.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians can be used, I supposed, in many different ways but I think he points out that when our lives are superficial, when our relationships have no depth, our lives have no meaning. And if our lives have no meaning, how can we expect to have any future?

Samuel heard God calling not one time but three times. It is not easy to get to the truth immediately. In a world where superficiality is the norm and not the exception, in a world where we have no desire to look at things in depth because it takes too long, we are willing to except artificial as real and false ideas as the truth. There was a note in The New York Times the other day that pointed out that the economic ideas being put forth in New Hampshire last week as the way of saving the economy of this country were actually the reason why the economy was in trouble.

I would also argue that those who call themselves Christian but turn a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and helpless are a reason why this country is in trouble. Right now, the United Methodist Church is seeking to change the direction that it is headed. The numbers say that the UMC will be dead in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, from where I stand, I don’t see the answer that others may see. Because what I see are many churches that are blind to the condition of the people in their communities. Oh, there are food banks in practically every church in town but there are afterthoughts and if people in the churches were pushed, they would tell you that they would rather not have them.

But I remember that John Wesley saw the condition of the people and the response of the church and he worked to change the perception and the outcome. The first Sunday school, the first credit union, the first health care clinic were all products of the Methodist revival of the 18th century. And because John Wesley and those who followed and walked with him choose to go into the mines and the prisons, the factories and the streets, the violent revolution that ravaged France did not occur in England.

If you say that you are a Methodist, then you lay claim to that heritage that changed the world some two hundred and fifty years ago. If you say that you are a Christian, then you claim to follow Christ, to do the things that he did when he walked the dusty roads of the Galilee.

The Old Testament reading is about God calling the young boy Samuel to service in His name. And for some, those first few verses are all that matters. But those who prepared the lectionary also included the next set of verses, verses that are not often read. But I choose to include them today because I am concerned that church is in the same situation today as it was some three thousand or so years ago. There are those who have and are destroying the church; they have taken the name Christ but only superficially. It is not just the television evangelists who would have you send in a couple of dollars for a small vial of oil or a piece of cloth but those who come to church on Sunday and then leave Christ tucked away in a storage closet until they come back the next week.

Jesus promised Nathaniel that he, Nathaniel, would see great things before he was through. And that is a promise that is given to us as well. Just as Samuel was called, just as Nathaniel was called, so too are we called today to follow Christ. We do not have to answer that call but if we are to be who we say we are, we have to. It is a matter of our identity, of saying and being who we are.

By What Name Shall You Be Called?

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (20 January 2008).  The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.


This has been edited since it was first published on 19 January 2008.


Sometime long ago (and probably in a galaxy far, far away) I started collecting sayings that interested me. (Some of them are listed at “A Collection of Sayings”.) One that causes me to smile is “time is nature’s way of keeping everything happening at once.” Of course, with our new granddaughter, I am reminded that “a child with a hammer thinks everything is a nail.”

When I looked at my collection as I was preparing this piece, I noticed that I had also recorded a saying by Nehru. Nehru, who with Mahatma Gandhi successfully freed India and the Indian sub-continent from British colonial rule, once said,

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

It seems to me that I recorded this statement because it was very similar in nature to the first saying that I ever wrote down. From the Talmud, we read,

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

John Kennedy used this saying as a way of expressing why he ran for President in 1960.

There have been times when I have felt that I was at a time and in a place where I was supposed to be and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. To me, this is a feeling that comes when you are called by God.

Now, I have to be honest. I have never had the life-changing experience that transformed Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus. There are those who have said that you are not a true Christian if you do not have such a born-again experience.

But I don’t think that you have to have a public life-changing experience in order to understand that you have been called by God. To be born again is to understand that your life has a greater meaning through Christ than it does otherwise. It is to understand that there is a time when you are called to do things that only you can do. It will change your life because you will not walk the path you were walking; you will go a different way and you will be a different person to the people you meet.

I began my walk in 1963 when I was living in Montgomery, Alabama. Then I made the decision to seek the Boy Scout God and Country award. I am not sure how many individuals earn this award each year but I would hazard a guess that it is a substantially smaller number than the number of Scouts who earn the rank of Eagle. That is because the Eagle award can be earned by the successful completion of a number of tasks, whereas completion of the God and Country award requires a number of personal decisions that cannot be measured through completion of tasks.

Throughout the period of time between 1965 and 1991, when I gave my first sermon, there were times when I had a feeling that something was missing from my life. There were times in this period of life when I felt that I was lost in the wilderness and each time when that feeling of being lost was perhaps the greatest, I could feel God pulling me back.

It is a feeling that I think Isaiah is trying to express in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 49: 1 – 7). Isaiah knows that God called for him to be a prophet long before he was born. He also expresses the frustration that comes with being a prophet at that time and, in his own frustration probably expresses what will happen to the Messiah when the Messiah begins His own ministry. But Isaiah’s understanding of his situation should be something that is very familiar to each and every one of us.

It could be that your minister or a friend asked you to do something for the church. It might have been a voice in your mind was telling you that you had to do something, that you couldn’t stand by and let the people go hungry or without a home. So you started volunteering to work for a food cabinet or at a soup kitchen. You read about Habitat for Humanity and began using the skills you were taught in shop class so many years ago.

It was a call that wasn’t a shout but rather a murmur. It was like John the Baptist pointing out Jesus to his friends (See the Gospel lesson for today – John 1: 29 – 42). It is out of curiosity that you seek, as did Andrew and Peter, to find out who Jesus was.

You might find that you are torn by this call that you hear. Society says that we are to be paid for our time and effort; society turns a deaf ear on those who call out for help and it chastises those who try to help. We often find ourselves wondering what we will gain if we answer the call and we often do not answer the call because we would much rather have the riches of the world than the riches of the kingdom.

But Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9) somehow echo in your mind as well. We find that the work that we do will strengthen us and that we grow each day that we answer the call. Once, we were afraid to answer God’s call because of the ridicule that it would bring. We were also worried that we would turn into some mindless automaton following some tyrannical church leader.

But we find that as we work and as we study, we grow. Our lives slowly change and we become different. People say that we look the same but that we are somehow not the same. We are not sure how to answer them but we explain that a call from God is not a life-ending change but rather a life-changing beginning. A life in Christ has not restricted us but rather allowed us to grow.

And one day, someone came up to you and say thank you for what you did.

The call to be a follower of Christ is neither as dramatic as some make it out to be nor so subtle as to not even be noticed. Rather, it is a part of your life. The life change will come after you are called, not before. The likelihood is that you are being called right now, by the name that your parents gave you when you were born. All you have to do is stop for a moment and listen, for the call is there and it is up to you to answer. You are called by your name because God knows your name and He wishes you to be a part of His Kingdom.

“Did You Hear?”

This is the message I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.


A while back someone made a comment to me that I found to be, at the least, intriguing. In conjunction with a discussion about church membership, this person said that the church had failed some of its members. Because of what was transpiring that day, I chose not to follow up on that comment. But now I wish I had.

What can a church do to fail its members? A number of years ago, the husband of one of the parishioners complained that I had not visited his wife while she was in the hospital. Now, whatever the limits are on my responsibilities, if asked, I will visit someone when they are sick and in the hospital. But in this case, I had not been advised, by anyone, that this person was in the hospital. How am I to visit anyone if I do not know that they want to be visited? Did either the church or I fail this family?

I have received a number of phone calls from people in the Peekskill area asking that I, as a representative of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, help them with their rent. Of course, this is something that the church or I are not able to do. Still, I try my best to direct them to resources that might help them. What I have always found interesting is the response of these individuals who have called me. Generally speaking, it is not a polite request for assistance but almost a demand that the church or I somehow relieve them of this burden. One person became almost abusive when I said that I was not able to help them in the manner that they wanted.

Maybe somehow either the church or I fail these individuals but I think not. We all are supposed to help individuals in a time of need but those who make a living seeking out that assistance are not necessarily those that need our help. This is not to say that I will not help someone if I can.

On more than one occasion I have bought someone a meal when they asked me for money for food. I know that Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan has an arrangement with the diner just down the street from the church. If someone comes to the pastor asking for money for a meal, they are directed to the diner. The restaurant staff will provide them with a reasonable meal and set the bill aside for the pastor to pay later. In such cases, if the individual in question does not want to partake of this arrangement, that is their choice.

It is true that in one area, I cannot provide any help. That is the area of professional counseling. My background and my status as a lay pastor do not allow me to go into that area; it would be wrong ethically, morally, and professionally. If someone asks for help in that regard, I will do what I can to get such individuals the assistance that they need.

Those who seek help from the church should receive it, somehow and someway. If what the church can provide is not what they seek, then they need to consider their request. Only if the church refuses to provide the aid, assistance, and comfort that the individual needs can it be said that the church has failed its members.

But this brings up the question of what members can expect from their church. I really and truly cannot say what one should expect from being a member of a church. I know that I have to be a member of a local United Methodist Church in order to be in the pulpit this morning. When I joined Whitesburg UMC in Kentucky and then Fishkill UMC over in Fishkill, I told the pastors involved that it was because I needed the membership in order to contain my lay minister. To the credit of the Gordon Abbott, Bob Richmond, Arlene Beechert-Hood, and Peggy Ann Sauerhoff, they understood and supported me in this regard. You have to ask yourself why you are a member of this United Methodist Church and what you expect from such membership.

I do know that when you joined, you agreed to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I also know that there is nothing in those vows as to what one will get from the church in return. I know that some expect that being a member will allow their children to be baptized and married in the church and that when the time comes, their funeral will be held in the church. But as I have said in the past, I don’t think in those terms. If someone were to ask if he or she or their children could be baptized in the church, I would agree to it. Of course, I would also explain to them that I have to make arrangements for an ordained pastor to assist in the service; the same is essentially true for weddings. But here again, there is an assumption that those making the request will remember that their participation in the ceremony requires their participation after the ceremony is complete.

I am also discovering that there are those who feel that church membership somehow gets one out of spiritual trouble. I think this goes a long way to explain what has transpired over the past few months in terms of Christianity and the secular world.

People somehow think they can add Jesus Christ to their lives. They see Jesus as a rescue boat from the sea of sin or fire insurance to protect them from the flames of hell. Joining the church comforts them. They still go on living their lives according to their own standards, their own desires, and their own wishes.

But our salvation is not accomplished by simply adding Jesus to our lives; salvation is accomplished when we accept Jesus into our hearts and make Him the Lord of our Life. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)  In the words of one evangelist, "being a member of a church won’t necessarily make you a Christian anymore that being a member of the Lions Club will make you a Lion." (From A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins)

As we read the New Testament we will never find Jesus presenting Himself as something we add to our lives, like we do other things. Throughout the New Testament, He never tells people to accept Him and then do whatever they please. On the contrary, He tells them point blank, "Follow me!"

He does come as our Savior but He also comes as our Lord. The message is similar to the two sides of a coin. If you accept the coin, you get both sides of the coin. Jesus will be your Savior but He will also be your Lord.

But we tend to gloss over the first time we might have heard His call to discipleship. I am not sure that many of us have ever experienced the call that Peter, Andrew, James and John experienced. Jesus’ words to these fishermen were simply to "Follow me." And His guarantee of making them fishers of men wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of financial security.

Fishing was a very prominent part of the Israel economy back then. To leave their nets and follow Jesus was to give up everything that one could imagine in terms of financial provision, security, familiarity and identity. To leave their fishing business was to leave their families (which they had) without financial support. Peter later tells others that they gave up everything to follow Christ.

The disciple Matthew did the same when he was called to follow Jesus. In contrast to the lifestyle of the fishermen, who might be crude in manner, rough in speech, and in their treatment of others, one might expect Matthew to be accustomed to the good life. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector so he had financial security that was not dependent on nature like Peter and the others. He had a fixed and consistent livelihood as well as an identity (even if it made him one of the most despised men in town). But he gave up his earthly riches in return for heavenly rewards.

What can we understand from these calls to the first disciples? I think we need to understand that true discipleship does not mean heartless devotion and needless sacrifice. But it also doesn’t mean that all we have to do is claim Jesus as our Savior. Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people believe today and it is what many churches today push.

I think this is why some people think the church has failed them. They are looking for something that is not there. No verse in the Scriptures promises that we will receive abundant material blessings in return for giving up things in God’s name. We are promised that we will receive eternal life. We are not promised that life will be good if we follow Jesus. But in the end, what we will receive will be beyond the depths of our understanding. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)

The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today. Though the servant may feel that he has labored in vain, the rewards for his labor are innumerable, but those rewards are not immediately obvious (in fact, they do not come in the prophecy for four more chapters). But, as shown in verse 7 of today’s reading, in the end kings will bow down before the servant. The way of life will change. We cannot see ourselves as Jesus but as His disciples. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the pain and suffering that Jesus will undergo for our sake. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the humiliation that Jesus will suffer for our sake. But in the end, it will be shown that Jesus will be the Lord over all the earth. The rewards for all that follow him will be there at the end.

These are Paul’s words to the Corinthians. In light of what we know about how the church in Corinth was in so much trouble, it is surprising that Paul would offer such words of thanksgiving. But Paul is focusing his praise, not on the troubled Corinthians, but on the eternally faithful God. Paul is not praising the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches, such as the Ephesians. Instead he praises God who works in them. When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement follows. But when we concentrate on the Lord, even the darkest hours can be filled with praise.

We have heard the words that Jesus spoke that day in Galilee. They have been a part of our life for as long as we can remember. We remember the words of Andrew telling his brother Simon that they have found the Messiah. But in the joy of hearing those words, did we forget that Jesus also told us to follow him?

I may not have answered my own questions about what one should expect from membership in a church. I still don’t know what it was that the church didn’t do to cause a former member to say that it had failed. But I hope that I have heard Jesus calling me and that I have done what He asked of me when He called. I would ask if you heard Him also.