“Lessons”


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

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.

Which Way Are You Headed?


This Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20), 1 Corinthians 6: 12- 20, and John 1: 43 – 51.

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It was a time of great difficulties when the Quiet One first came out of Nazareth. A foreign army once again occupied the land and imposed its rule on the people through draconian measures and an oppressive tax system that took 1/3 of a family’s income and lead to corruption and greed amongst tax collectors and other public officials. If you couldn’t pay your bills, you could be sold into slavery. There were divisions between the people because of race, economy, and life-style.

These were not new problems. Other foreign armies had come through this land, stripping it of its resources and its treasures, carrying away the best and brightest to captivity in foreign lands. Corruption and greed among public officials was nothing new. It had even affected the family of God’s own chosen prophet, Eli.

Eli’s sons, who followed in their father’s path as priests, used the privileges of their position for their own personal gain. Their acts were done with an open disdain for the will and work of God. It was as if Eli’s sons had looked at God in the eye and shaken their fist at Him. For them, there could be no redemption; no sacrifice could atone for their sins. And because Eli did nothing to stop them, he too would suffer the same punishment.

There would be other prophets who would hear God’s call and who would warn the people of what lie ahead. There would be good times, times when the people listened to God through the prophets. But in the good times, they would not remember and the bad times would come and they would feel lost. Darkness would again be over the land.

And then the Baptizer came, not to prophesize but to prepare the people. The Baptizer came warning the people that they needed to repent, to change their ways, to begin a new life washed by the water and soon by the Spirit. And when the authorities arrested and executed the Baptizer, his disciples looked for a new teacher, someone who could fulfill what the Baptizer was saying.

The Quiet One had come to the River Jordan to be baptized with the water. And He turned to two of the Baptizer’s disciples, saying “follow me and begin a new job, a new life.” These two friends told their brothers and together they told their friends. There is not doubt that many were told in those first days of the mission and the journey. But many were like Nathaniel Bartholomew and asked, “What good can come from Nazareth?”

But this Quiet One from Nazareth would tell Nathaniel how he had seen him sitting under the tree studying the Scriptures and trying to find in the Words of God the answer to the problems that confounded the people those days. This Quiet One would tell others the secrets that they thought had long hidden in the recesses of their mind and He would find ways to heal the chasms that separated them from the rest of society. Nathaniel would follow because He knew that the Quiet One spoke the truth; others would follow because they would see the truth in action.

But how would such action take place? Some were resigned to a life without hope. When the Quiet One came, there was not a lot of hope and, for many people all they had to look forward to after a long and hard life was death. So they took the attitude that all one should do is “eat, drink, and be merry”.

Some, like the Corinthians later, felt that acceptance of the Quiet One would give them license to do such things because their lives were protected by their faith. But illegal or immoral acts can never be justified by the outcome of one’s life. In Jesus Christ, the Quiet One, the Corinthians saw the opportunity to break free from the restrictions of the law, handed down from Moses that had been imposed on them. But Paul would point out that the decision to follow Christ did not mean that everything you said and did became acceptable. One’s spiritual activity can never be separated from one’s daily life, no matter how hard you might try. Freedom in Christ does not bring freedom from the law; rather it frees you to seek the fulfillment of the law.

And that is why so many people in the land some two thousand years ago felt hopeless. The law imposed on them by church authorities gave them no hope. They had been told that if they followed the rules that the religious leaders had created, created they were told by God, then God would watch over them and they would prosper. But the only ones who seemed to prosper were the religious leaders.

Other, more political leaders made similar compromises with the foreign governments whose armed forces occupied their land. Just as the religious leaders sought to make deals with God, so too did the political authorities seek to make deals that would keep them in power.

There were those living outside the main cities that saw the oppression of the people by the religious and political authorities and called for an armed revolt. Overthrow the foreign armies and throw out those who would collaborate with them; this would restore the country to its prominence among nations.

This was the land and time in which the Quiet One, Jesus, came from Nazareth. He offered those who heard his call neither glory nor power; he spoke of kings and lords who would be servants rather than persons of power. He spoke of healing the sick, caring for the needy, and of bringing sight to the blind and allowing the lame to walk. And while He spoke of freeing the oppressed, He never called for the people to rise up and fight. In His actions, He broke down the barriers that separated people. By His actions, He showed that each person was relevant and significant in the Kingdom of God.

His was a call for action; His was a call that offered hope and promise. And those who heard the call and followed Him felt that He could do something to bring light into the darkness of their world. His words and His actions quelled the inner fears that each one of them had, fears that belied the outer calm of their lives.

And when they started the journey, there were many who followed. They followed because they sensed adventure and action. They followed because it held the promise of being a better life than what they had. But over the next years that they would follow, the numbers grew smaller. Each day one or two would understand that this Quiet One’s call was to work for the kingdom, not simply live in it; each day one or two would leave the group to return to the way things had been. Each day one or two would give up the dream because the demands put on them to work for God went beyond what they had expected.

And then there were only the twelve men, their families, and the ones who knew that what Jesus said was the truth. Perhaps they didn’t understand just what was to come; perhaps they didn’t understand the cryptic messages that Jesus gave them concerning His death or their own deaths or the deaths of their friends.

There is no certainty that they understood what was to come that night when they gathered in the Upper Room for what we now call the Last Supper. It was not the first time that they had gathered for a Passover meal. But they could not know that they, those who heard the call some three years before, would now be faced with going out into the world to continue the call.

The world around us today is much like it was some two thousand years ago. True, we do not have a foreign army occupying our land but the peace that so many people speak of is a hollow and false peace, a peace brought through force and violence, of oppression and division. There are those who see the problems that mark this land, its economic problems, its social problems and even the religious problems that mark so much of the violence that mars this world as a sign of the End Times, a time they envision as the destruction of the earth and its people who do not believe as they do. For them the hope of tomorrow is a false hope, for in their rejoicing in the destruction of the world and in the certainty of their own self-righteousness, they ignore the very people that Christ came to save, those for whom the future is a dream that cannot be fulfilled because they can only live for today.

And while there are those who see a future in which there is hope and promise, they are unwilling to change their ways, relying instead on the old ways, the very ways that created the troubles that mark this land and this world.

There will be some who see the future and know that the future can be reached, not by the statements of political and religious leaders but by their own actions in accepting Jesus Christ as their own and to allow the Holy Spirit to change their lives and lead them in a new direction.

We hear the call today. It is the same call that Samuel heard but at first did not understand. It is the call first made to Peter and John, Andrew and James, then to Nathaniel and the others. It is the call to Paul on the road to Damascus to change the direction of his life. We are on the same journey as those and countless others; we are hearing the call. Shall we continue as we have or shall we change the direction of our lives and our future? The Lord spoke to Jeremiah and said, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16). In which direction are you headed?

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I took the term “Quiet One” from Clarence Jordan’s Sermon on the Mount.

It’s Not A Job, It’s An Adventure


This is the message I presented on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20), 1 Corinthians 6: 12- 20, and John 1: 43 – 51.

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It should not come as a surprise to you all that I am a fan of the 70’s cartoon show, “George of the Jungle.” For those of a more modern era, this was the cartoon show on Saturday mornings that was the basis for the movie of the same name. As with most of the Saturday cartoons, there were a number of selections and one or two starring other characters. One of those characters was Super Chicken. As with all super characters, he had a faithful sidekick, Fred.

Invariably, as Super Chicken was saving the world, Fred would get run over by a truck or hit with a wrecking ball or some other physical disaster that would leave him beat up and bedraggled. But just as he was complaining to his boss about the unfairness of this (after all, wasn’t it Super Chicken who was taking all the risks?), Super Chicken would say “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it!”

But I would hope that such thoughts do not creep into your mind, especially if you are one of those who we honored this morning with the installation of officers of the Administrative Council and members of the various committees. Rather, borrowing from and with my apologies to the U. S. Army, I would hope that you see the task before you as more of an adventure and not just a job that has to be done.

Whether it is serving the church or some organization, leadership roles have taken on a different meaning in the past few years. To some, being the leader of an organization is a matter of honor and pride but it is up to others to do the work. Some see that the position means that they are the only ones capable of doing the job and that they have to do it alone. Somewhere in the middle is where I think leadership falls.

Yes, it is a matter of honor and pride that other considered you worthy of the position that you were asked to take but that same honor and pride should demand that you lead others in the work that must be accomplished. But, by the same token, if you do not involve others in the task, if you feel that you alone are the only one who can complete the yearlong tasks, you will quickly find yourself burned out and not willing to serve the next time you are called.

When it comes to leadership, I think back to a saying that John Kennedy used to explain why he was running for the president of the United States back in 1960.

“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.” (The Talmud)

But how do we know when it is our time? What must we do to insure that we know when we are being called to serve? Knowing when it is our time to serve requires that we be ready to serve when called, that we are prepared to serve when called, and to know when we are being called to serve.

Philip told Nathaniel about Jesus but Nathaniel, having studied the prophecies, believed that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Some commentaries make Nathaniel comment about anything good coming out of Nazareth as a put down on the people of Nazareth but it was more a statement of what Nathaniel’s understanding of the prophecies. But when Jesus showed that he knew who Nathaniel was and that He knew him before this encounter, Nathaniel quickly and unhesitating acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. And like the others, Nathaniel quickly joined in following Jesus.

That Jesus was indeed the Messiah was that reason that He knew of Nathaniel’s character long before Nathaniel knew that Jesus was the Messiah. It was the manner in which Jesus could describe Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” It was also the basis for Jesus saying that great things would come to pass “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

It was Nathaniel’s character that enabled him to be chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve. It is a person’s character that is, in part, discussed in the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians today.

Granted, reading this passage by itself may not seem to fit into a discussion of leadership and who gets picked to serve the church. But when you look at all of 1 Corinthians, you see that Paul is urging the church in Corinth to be unified in its mission and outlook as it lives out the message of the cross in its midst.

As you go back and read this letter, remember that it was addressed to the church at Corinth. We are, in reality, reading someone else’s mail. But, even when we stand outside the circle of the original conversation, because we have been sanctified in Christ and call upon the name of the Lord, as they did, the conversation enlightens us as well.

At the time that Paul wrote this letter the Corinthians were lamentably deficient in their conduct, in spite of the fact that some of them claimed to have a superior wisdom. Paul, in both Chapters 5 and 6, reminds the Corinthians that there are a number of things that they still do not know

No matter how good the leaders are, if there isn’t a common goal, then nothing will be accomplished. Paul, in this letter urged the Corinthians to become more united in their fellowship. He called on individuals to seek the common good rather than their own personal good, to be willing to make concessions in the interest of others. This letter also imposes limits on spiritual enthusiasm. While recognizing the power of the Spirit in energizing the church and its ministries, Paul also say the excesses of spiritualism. If spiritual pursuits threaten domestic stability; they should be curbed. If they threaten to undermine meaningful worship, they should be balanced with more edifying spiritual behavior. On the whole, what emerges from this letter is a set of exhortations and instructions designed to make congregational life a meaningful form of fellowship.

So we may ready when we hear the call; we may be prepared to serve when asked; but how will we know when the call is made?

For me, the passage from the Old Testament is very special, because I was twelve years old, like Samuel, when I made the decision to seek the God and Country Award in the Scouts. But I am going to save that story for a few weeks from now. More importantly, I want us to look at the response of Eli.

It was Eli that understood, granted not immediately, that it was God calling Samuel that night in the temple. If Eli had not provided the proper instruction, Samuel would have never understood that God was calling him.

Leadership is not just a matter of serving now. Leadership can only be successful if you prepare others to serve. Serving for the present time is important but if you do not build for the future, then what is done today is rather limited.

So, the charge before us today is very simple. To serve the Lord and to welcome all those who seek Him. It may be that you will never know when that moment arrives. The preaching and teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and other bearers of God’s good news had impact but not immediate rewards. As we look through the Bible, we see countless stories of God giving us second, third, and myriad chances. You may never know exactly when the words that you say or the works that you do become the Word of life for another person. Maybe that’s is why this is not a job that you have been asked to do but rather an adventure that you have been asked to undertake.

Hearing God Call


This is the message I presented on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 19 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20), 1 Corinthians 6: 12- 20, and John 1: 43 – 51.

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Throughout the years I have had the chance to hear or know about a number of children’s sermons. One sermon that I would like to have heard involved the senior pastor at one of the churches in Memphis. This particular pastor had an aversion to doing children’s sermons, preferring to let his associate pastor or the Director of Christian Education do them. But he was forced into doing a children’s sermon one Sunday because he found out that the children didn’t know who he was or what he did each Sunday. Unfortunately, because of a previous commitment I did not get to be there for that momentous occasion.

But, of all the children’s sermons that I have heard, the best one came on Laity Sunday in 1992. When I came to this particular church, Laity Sunday was an occasion for the regular pastor to take the Sunday off and have the lay speaker do everything from the opening announcements to the closing benediction. All in all, it was not really fair to the congregation or to the lay speaker.

When I took on this particular assignment in 1991, I wanted to involve the entire laity in the service. Based on the success of the 1991 service, we sought to replicate it in 1992. For the children’s sermon that year, I wanted Kathy Mugge to do it. Kathy was a young, active mother in the church and a language teacher in the local Catholic school system. Because she was a teacher, many in the congregation wanted her to teach the junior high kids during Sunday school. They could not understand why she would refuse to do so. Some were even very nasty in response to her refusal.

But her refusal was based on sound reasoning and supported by the pastor. She worked with that same age group all week long and she was entitled to time off from teaching in order to enjoy the meaning of Sunday herself. We find many times that people in a church congregation think that because someone is good at something or does something every day, that they are automatically willing to take on that task for the church on Sunday. It does not always work out that way because they do not get a chance to recharge or enjoy the meaning of Sunday. If someone wants to do something for the church that is in line with what they do every day, then let them; but do not force them.

Were it not for the fact that the message that I was presenting that Sunday included the passage from Samuel that we read this morning, I would not have even approached Kathy about doing the children’s sermon for me. But I explained what I had in mind and she readily agreed to do so. Once the children had gathered on the altar, she greeted them with “Guten haben, mein herren and mein damen.” She continued in German, encouraging the children to wave to their mothers and fathers. Because I was seated behind the children, I could not see their faces and that is something I have always regretted. For I could not see the bewilderment or confusion that surely was on their faces. But through her coaching and the use of German words that are the root of common English words, the children quickly understood what it was she was saying. Her message still rings true today, that while God may speak to us clearly and distinctly, we are not always able to understand what he is saying. Like Samuel, we hear God calling but do not always recognize that it is He who is doing so.

It is hard to describe how one hears God. Often times, we think and are told that such encounters must be like Paul’s on the road to Damascus or Moses’ with the burning bush. Even today there are those who will say that unless there is thunder and lightning or other similar events taking place, at least in your mind, then our encounter with God is limited and invalid.

We should not try to justify or question someone else’s calling. But we should make sure that we hear the calling that is meant for us. The church in Corinth struggled with division among its members, division created by how each group was identified and how it interpreted the Gospel message. The Corinthians interpreted the message in terms of the person delivering the message rather than through Jesus Christ. Paul’s words for today were meant to show that you could not interpret the Gospel in a way that simply justified what you wanted to do. Rather, in following the Gospel, you choose a different path.

We might be tempted to just write off this problem, saying that it was a young church, still in a growing stage of life. But it is something that we still do today. Society today tends to exalt dynamic leaders, especially those who are engaging Christian speakers or vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders. Our identification belongs with Jesus Christ and His message, not with the messenger.

God uses sinful people. (From Connections, #123 – January 2003, Barbara Wendland)

From what we read in the Bible it seems quite clear that God calls people who are far from sinless. Look at Moses. While the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, he murdered a man and fled to avoid being caught. Look at David, too. Scripture shows God calling him “a man after my own heart,” yet he blatantly committed adultery. Not only that, he schemed to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle, to get him out of the way. And we read about David publicly exposing himself in a way that onlookers criticized and that we would consider indecent if not criminal.

We’d reject some that God has called

Many leaders chosen by God in more recent times are also well known to have had far less than perfect records of behavior. John Wesley, for example, had a questionable history of relationships with women. Martin Luther King’s sexual behavior was evidently far from admirable. Yet someone whose behavior was known to be similar to either of these men’s would be unacceptable in the ordained ministry of many of today’s churches. And we could name many other outstanding Christian leaders who were called by God but whose behavior wasn’t perfect.

God doesn’t require perfection

Countless examples make clear that God calls and uses imperfect people to carry out the ministries God wants done. That’s fortunate, isn’t it, because if perfection were a requirement for being called by God and accepting the call, then none of us would qualify. In fact, God would have a very severe shortage of people to use as leaders.

Can we justify being more selective than God? That question isn’t as easy to answer as it may seem, because in today’s institutionalized church and especially in today’s litigious society, we probably must have standards for who we will let represent the church and who we won’t. Still, we need to keep asking, “Can we legitimately reject someone whom God has called?”

So the question is how do we hear God’s call? Will it be with thunder and lightning and voices calling down from heaven, as it was for Paul. Or will it be from a burning bush that is never consumed, as it was for Moses? I think not.

The way in which we encounter God is going to be one we least expect. Like the disciples, God is likely to come up to us in the form of a passing stranger or a close friend. It was that way throughout Jesus’ entire ministry. Though the crowds that grew around him were enough to tell people that He was entering the city, he never encouraged such announcements. He did not send in advance teams to rent out the local amphitheater. More often, his work and ministry was done quietly and humbly.

God’s call to each one of us, more often than not, will have us to do something for others. That’s what makes it so difficult to hear the call and even more difficult to answer it. Look at the twelve who were first called. To each of the twelve chosen to be a disciple, Jesus simply said, “Follow me.”

It could not have been very practical to just get up, leave their present jobs and families behind. To follow Jesus at that time was a very risky venture. Times were tough and this man from Nazareth was asking them to leave everything and work for him, not knowing if they would get paid for their efforts. Better to stay where they were, doing what they knew best and eke out a living as best as they could. And though we know what the disciples did, we never hear what they wives and families said or what they thought.

But, Jesus was the one they were expecting. Philip and Andrew both knew that the Messiah was coming and what they saw told them that Jesus was perhaps that person. Only Nathaniel was initially skeptical, citing the common belief of the time that Nazareth was not a place from which great persons came. But as we read, when the evidence was put forth, even Nathaniel believed.

Following God requires faith and commitment. If we have the faith to believe and we make the commitment, we can do anything. Ask Noah or Samuel or any of the earlier disciples what faith meant to them. Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America what commitment to the program meant. Could they have survived the weeks traveling from town to town, in all types of weather, were it not for their own faith or their commitment to the Gospel message? Where would this church be were it not for those early circuit riders?

Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of our church, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that these early preachers would have to endure. He didn’t want someone whose commitment was weak or whose faith was not the strongest. He wasn’t looking for someone who was in it for personal glory, for there was none to be given back then. Glory and fame would come later, if at all.

Just as then, our own encounters with God today will come through those moments where our service is needed the most. An atheist is said to have proclaimed, in what must have surely been a shock to his or her friends, that they met Christ in Calcutta after observing Mother Teresa move about quietly, taking care of those in need, without fanfare or announcement. For Mother Teresa, service was more than praying about the outcome. Service was helping those in need because it was a completion of Matthew 25: 31 – 46, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless and you took me in.”

So how will we hear God’s call? Will it be from someone in need whom we choose to walk right by? Will it be from someone hungry whom we choose not to feed? Will we miss the cry of those who cry out for peace and justice simply because it is not the politically correct thing to do at this time? Will it come from some soul who seeks to find peace and solitude in a world of darkness and trouble but whose cries are muffled by the disagreements between people?

Will we be like the Corinthians, following leaders more interested in their own agenda rather than the true message of the Gospel? Will we be at first skeptical that God would even speak to us here at Tompkins Corners?

This much is certain; God’s call to us will come in a way that we do not expect; He will ask us to do something we don’t think we can do. And each person’s call will be as different as the person receiving it will. It is will also be hard to say how many opportunities we will be given to hear God’s call for service. But each encounter that we have with someone may be that occasion when choosing to speak to us.

In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins described his journey from Alfred University in upstate New York through North Carolina and Alabama to New Orleans. Along the way, he had a chance to attend an old-fashion church revival in Mobile, Alabama. There it became clear that what he would find on his journey was his own salvation and the answers he was looking for in his search for the truth. But he also found that what he was looking for was not found at the revival; rather, it was at the revival that he discovered that he had met the Holy Spirit through the quiet lives of people he had encountered during his time walking down the Appalachians. It was at the revival that he began to understand how the presence of the Holy Spirit provides the strength and support needed when encountering many great difficulties.

There is the old evangelist’s song about Jesus calling. He does not call loud and strong but softly and sweetly; it is a call that does not go away easily. And just God kept calling on Samuel, so too will he keep calling on each one of us until we answer that call. We have the opportunity to answer God’s call; shouldn’t we do so?


Hearing God’s Call


I got the call last night to fill in down in Harriman, New York. Interesting how things work out. Here are the thoughts that I will use this morning.

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I entitled this sermon “Hearing God’s Call” because of the call God made to Solomon and the call Jesus made to each of his disciples.Little did I realize that God’s call to me on a Saturday evening would be from Newburgh asking me to cover a church down in the Harriman area of New York.

Do you remember those days back in elementary school when you would go out for recess and you would pick teams for whatever games you were going to play that day?Remember how it was that the more talented boys and girls got picked first and the lesser talented ones were always the last to be picked?Perhaps you were in the first group; perhaps you were in the latter group.To a certain extent, we still work in that type of “pick me first” type of environment; one in which we hope that our talents are sufficient to do the task at hand and which meet the requirements of whatever we are trying to do.

In writing about his early coaching career, John Wooden tells a story about a high school player he was coaching who was not a good “practice” player.And since, at that time, he believed in a strong practice ethic, he would not start the young man.But the young man keep pestering Coach Wooden to start him, insisting that he could do the job that was required.Finally, Coach Wooden let the young man start a major game.He figured that the young man would do poorly and be embarrassed about his performance and would let Coach Wooden alone after that.But, to his surprise, the young man turned in one of the most stellar performances imaginable.And Coach Wooden admitted that his assessment of the young man was faulty, for what happens in practice does not always happen in the game.The young man went on from there and Coach Wooden went on to UCLA; and we know how that story ended.

We think that we must have certain skills or talents in order to do many tasks.And occasionally that is true; we cannot drive a car without some rudimentary instruction and being able to bowl for a high average cannot be done without some instruction and practice.But God does not call us because of our talents; He calls us because of our faith and commitment.

But I have to be able to do something, you say; I cannot simply say to God “Here I am, send me” for I won’t know what to do.We will bring whatever we have that we allow us to adhere to God’s standards of truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness, and love.We will use whatever skills and talents that we have that will allow God’s presence to be known in this world.

The Corinthians thought that the freedom that was gained through Christ gave them license to do just about anything they wanted to do.But sin is still present and when you use your talents, whatever they are, however limited they may be, for your own good then your talents are wasted and abused and you have fallen into sin.You cannot work for Christ in this world if you hold your talents back and do things more for yourself than for Christ.

So it is not about the talents we have or don’t have; it is about faith and commitment.Following God requires faith and commitment.If we have the faith to believe and we make the commitment, we can do anything.Ask Noah or Samuel or any of the earlier disciples what faith meant to them.Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America what commitment to the program meant.Could they have survived the weeks traveling from town to town, in all types of weather, were it not for their own faith or their commitment to the Gospel message?Where would this church in Rockland County be today if not for those early circuit riders?

Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of our church, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that these early preachers would have to endure.He didn’t want someone whose commitment was weak or whose faith was not the strongest.He wasn’t looking for someone who was in it for personal glory, for there was none to be given back then.Glory and fame would come later, if at all.

Just as then, our own encounters with God today will come through those moments where our service is needed the most. An atheist is said to have proclaimed, in what must have surely been a shock to his or her friends, that they met Christ in Calcutta after observing Mother Teresa move about quietly, taking care of those in need, without fanfare or announcement.For Mother Teresa, service was more than praying about the outcome.Service was helping those in need because it was a completion of Matthew 25: 31 – 46, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless and you took me in.”

Jim Wallis, the noted evangelist, wrote that he struggled with the notion of the church during his college years.Those were the years of turmoil and strife, of fight for justice and peace.Some of those who were in this fight spoke of revolution but gave up because the threats and punishment of the system were too strong.

But Wallis writes that it was with all that was going on, he was pushed to know Jesus even more than he already did.During those times of the late 1960’s, he was called again by Jesus to put into action the words of the Gospel.Growing up as he did, Wallis thought he understood who Jesus was and what the call was, but the strife and the apparent lack of concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, and the oppressed led him, if you will, back to Calvary.

In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins described his journey from Alfred University in upstate New York through North Carolina and Alabama to New Orleans.Along the way, he had a chance to attend an old-fashion church revival in Mobile, Alabama.There it became clear that what he would find on his journey was his own salvation and the answers he was looking for in his search for the truth.But he also found that what he was looking for was not found at the revival; rather, it was at the revival that he discovered that he had met the Holy Spirit through the quiet lives of people he had encountered during his time walking down the Appalachians.It was at the revival that he began to understand how the presence of the Holy Spirit provides the strength and support needed when encountering many great difficulties.

The problem is that we are often like Samuel, who heard the voice of God but did not know that it was God. (1)  Other times we are like Nathanael, who was skeptical that God would be represented by a man from Nazareth. (2)  When Nathanael was told by Philip that the Messiah had called them (Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip), all Nathanael could say was “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

There were going to be others who were skeptical of the claim that Jesus was and is the Messiah.Those that kept the minds closed and their hearts hard will be among the ones who turn against at the end.

In this world of ours today, we hear some proclaim say that the word of God brings death and destruction to lands and people.We hear some proclaim, in the name of God, that it is okay to exclude people from our churches because of their status or lifestyle.We have a right to be skeptical if we think Christ calls us to destroy or exclude or ignore those less fortunate.We have a right to be skeptical if those around us say Christ calls them to hate or speak of disaster because of lifestyles or choices.

But when we hear Christ’s true words, we no longer are skeptical.That is why Nathanael followed Jesus when he was called; he was open to the possibility that Jesus is.Nathanael is described as one in whom there is nothing false.This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have some wrong beliefs, as the world false might suggest but rather that he is honest and clear-sighted.Nathanael is one who sought God before all else.Jesus told Nathanael that He saw him under the fig tree before Philip called.This was enough for Nathanael to explain that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Only someone with an open mind and a clean heart is going to understand in that brief moment who he was meeting.He accepted Jesus because he understood the truth that Jesus has looked into his heart and knew who he, Nathanael, was.For Nathanael, that is reason enough to heed to call to follow me.It is reason enough for us as well.

The critical thing is that Nathanael’s mind is open, his heart is clean.What skills and abilities he brings to the mission will be there for the mission and nothing else.This is what Paul is alluding to in his letter to the Corinthians. (3)

It is hard to describe how one hears God.Often times, we think and are told that such encounters must be like Paul’s on the road to Damascus or Moses’ with the burning bush.Even today there are those who will tell you that your encounter with God is limited and invalid unless there is thunder and lightning or other similar events taking place, at least in your mind.

We should not try to justify or question someone else’s calling.But we should make sure that we hear the calling that is meant for us.The church in Corinth struggled with division among its members, division created by how each group was identified and how it interpreted the Gospel message.The Corinthians interpreted the message in terms of the person delivering the message rather than through Jesus Christ.Paul’s words for today were meant to show that you could not interpret the Gospel in a way that simply justified what you wanted to do.Rather, in following the Gospel, you choose a different path.

We might be tempted to just write off this problem, saying that it was a young church, still in a growing stage of life.But it is something that we still do today.Society today tends to exalt dynamic leaders, especially those who are engaging Christian speakers or vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders.Our identification belongs with Jesus Christ and His message, not with the messenger.

We are called to come and see, as Philip invited Nathanael.Christ calls us to build, not destroy.Christ calls us to unify, not separate.Christ calls us to bring the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed into the community of God, not cast them out.

It may be that some will not understand that they are being called.They need those who understand Christ’s call, just as Eli helped Samuel (1), so that they too may join Christ in His mission on earth.That is why we have the church today; we are here, we must be here for that one individual who walks through the door in his search for Christ in his life.

Let us then open our hearts and our minds; let us hear God calling to us this day and this moment.Let us take to God that which he has given us and work so that others will come to know the joy and peace found in Christ.God called Samuel, Jesus called the twelve, and now today we hear Christ calling to us, over the loud noises of the daily world.Should we not heed the call and follow Christ?

Jesus calls us over the tumult

Of our life’s wild, restless, sea;

Day by day His sweet voice soundeth,

Saying, “Christian, follow Me!”

As of old Saint Andrew heard it

By the Galilean lake,

Turned from home and toil and kindred,

Leaving all for Jesus’ sake.

Jesus calls us from the worship

Of the vain world’s golden store,

From each idol that would keep us,

Saying, “Christian, love Me more!”

In our joys and in our sorrows,

Days of toil and hours of ease,

Still He calls, in cares and pleasures,

“Christian, love Me more than these!”

Jesus calls us! By Thy mercies,

Savior may we hear Thy call,

Give our hearts to Thine obedience,

Serve and love Thee best of all.

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  1. 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10 (11 – 20)
  2. John 1: 43 – 51
  3. 1 Corinthians 6: 12 – 20