“Is Your Faith in A Box or In Use?”

These are my thought for this coming Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), January 20, 2019 and will be on the back page of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC.


Some years ago, in response to a post on my blog related to science and faith, someone suggested that my PhD from Iowa was fake.  Somehow this individual felt that one could not be a scientist (in my case, a chemist) and a Christian.  And if you could, you needed to keep them in separate boxes, so they didn’t “disturb” each other.  We all know people like that today, whose actions and words during the week are a far cry from what they say and do on Sundays.  And unfortunately, this separation of secular and sectarian activities is far more common than we would like to think.

Putting things in boxes is a good way to store them but you often forget what you put in what box and even where you put the boxes.  And what is stored away quickly becomes out of date and nothing more than faded memories.

Our faith was never meant to be used occasionally, only to be brought out on special days and our skills were not meant to be just learned and then put away.  Our faith was meant to be used every day and we can always find ways to use our skills, even if not in the way we might have once thought.  The world and society around us change each day and we would be ill-prepared to deal with such changes otherwise.

Our skills are the best way we to express our faith and our faith is expressed in the skills that we have been given.

So, let us take our skills and faith out of the boxes we have stored them in and use them every day so that others may find Christ, the source of gifts and faith, and their own skills.

~~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.

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)

What is it about the good stuff?

These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 17 January 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 62: 1 – 5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11. This is also “Human Relations Sunday”.


I didn’t realize that there was a song entitled the “The Good Stuff” or that Kenny Chesney wrote it. But I had heard something with the words “good stuff” in it and I went “looking” for it on the Internet. Then I connected the words that I had heard from a television commercial with his song. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the song or country and western music for that matter. But it does have a lot to do with the theme for this Sunday being Human Relations Sunday and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As it happens, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death in Memphis is Easter Sunday this year, April 4, 2010, and I will be at the Dover United Methodist Church (Location of church) to lead the services. “Nathaniel Bartholomew” will be presenting part of the message; hopefully John Wesley and the woman at the well will join him in the celebration of the Resurrection. More details will come in the next few weeks. If you have not read either “Where were you on April 4, 1968?” or “On this day”, then please do so. It will give you some idea of my thoughts for this particular Sunday.

When you read the history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, you will find that it wasn’t just a strike for better wages or better working conditions; it was also a strike for dignity and respect.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/ )

On February 12th, 1375 workers (sanitation workers and other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% hourly increase (or 8-1/2 cents).

It was this strike that brought Dr. King, rather reluctantly, to Memphis. But he understood that racial equality was very much tied to economic equality, so he came to Memphis. When you consider what has happened to the economy over the past few years, you have to wonder if people really care about equality of any kind.

Banking organizations argue that they are too big to fail and come begging for Federal money to save them. And both the present and the past administrations have blindly given them the money that they have requested. But all this has apparently done is to reinforce the notion that the rich can have what they want and the poor must suffer. The one single aspect of the economy over the past ten years or so is that the gap between the rich and the poor, those with and those without has gotten bigger and it looks like it will continue to get bigger.

And yet we continue to say that we are a Christian nation, committed to the ideals that Christ taught us some two thousand years ago. What happened to the money changers in the Temple? It was well known that they and the tax collectors routinely ripped off the common folk, charging exorbitant exchange rates and demanding more fees than were required or reasonable. Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple to show his anger with their behavior. Yet, it seems as if we merely put guards around our financial system and told the bankers to keep on doing what they have been doing.

When Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, it was for equality, economic, social, and racial justice. Looking back over the past forty-two years, I am not entirely sure that we have changed that much.

Anytime there is a discussion of raising the Federal minimum wage, the conservatives hold true to form and say that this will destroy small businesses and they are opposed to the idea. But, from a business standpoint, what good does it do to allow big businesses to pay exorbitant salaries and bonuses to the upper level executives while the workers are struggling? It is time; in fact, it is long overdue that our discussion focuses on a living wage, not a minimum wage.

I wrote about the living wage back in 2006 when I gave the message “What If?” In it I noted that the city council of Chicago had voted to require Wal-Mart and other similar stories to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with an additional $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart replied that they would pull out of the Chicago market rather than do such a thing. Businessmen always seem to think that paying the employees a little bit more will do more harm than good, yet many companies have no problem giving upper level management ridiculously large bonuses.

I suppose that earning the minimum wage is alright if you can find a place where you can get by on $290 a week or $15,080 a year. Current Federal poverty guidelines state that the poverty line starts at $10,830 for one person, $14,570 for two persons, and $18,310 for a family of three (2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines). But the Federal guidelines don’t consider where you live or how many people are in your family.

Consider the following fiscal data for where I live in the state of New York. (The following data is from http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/states/36/locations)

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year). The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. The poverty rate is typically quoted as gross annual income. In this data, it has been converted to an hourly wage for the sake of comparison. Wages that are less than the living wage are shown in red.

Hourly Wages One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Living Wage $10.82 $19.96 $15.86 $25.00 $31.99
Poverty Wage $5.04 $6.68 $6.49 $7.81 $9.83
Minimum Wage $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25

These values are reflective of the community in which the person lives. If I go twenty miles north, the living wage for a family of two adults and two children drops to $28.98; if I go twenty miles south, the living wage for the same family goes up to $34.65. But it is more important to note when you consider the expenses for living in this area, a single adult working at the minimum wage does not earn enough to meet his or her basic needs (see the following table on typical monthly expenses). Is this right?

Typical Expenses

These figures show the individual expenses that went into the living wage estimate. Their values vary by family size, composition, and the current location.

Monthly Expenses One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Food $237 $386 $458 $607 $756
Child Care $0 $624 $0 $624 $1,104
Medical $94 $186 $188 $280 $372
Housing $901 $1,103 $901 $1,103 $1,103
Transportation $278 $479 $556 $757 $958
Other $200 $393 $400 $593 $786
Monthly After-Tax Income That’s Required $1,710 $3,171 $2,503 $3,964 $5,079
Annual After-Tax Income That’s Required $20,520 $38,052 $30,036 $47,568 $60,954
Annual Taxes $1,995 $3,471 $2,943 $4,433 $5,580
Annual Before Tax Income That’s Required $22,515 $41,523 $32,979 $52,001 $66,534

Typical Hourly Wages

These are the typical hourly rates for various professions in this location. Wages that are below the living wage for one adult supporting one child are marked in red.

Occupational Area Typical Hourly Wage
Management $44.49
Legal $38.54
Computer and Mathematical $30.81
Architecture and Engineering $30.69
Healthcare Practitioner and Technical $30.13
Business and Financial Operations $27.51
Life, Physical and social Science $27.17
Education, Training and Library $23.04
Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media $20.66
Construction and Extraction $20.54
Protective Service $20.45
Installation, Maintenance and Repair $18.61
Community and Social Services $18.48
Healthcare Support $18.48
Sales and Related $15.68
Production $14.82
Office and Administrative Support $14.33
Transportation and Material Moving $14.04
Farming, Fishing and Forestry $12.18
Building and Grounds Cleaning and maintenance $11.77
Personal care and Services $10.92
Food Preparation and Serving Related $9.64

These values are reflective of the area in which I live. There are changes in these values depending on where you might live. But it is quite clear that people in certain jobs are not going to make it at their present salary without some sort of assistance. So we might ask “Who gets the good stuff?”

When Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding feast, everyone was surprised because it was a better quality wine than was being served. From some notes I had before, one used the good stuff first and then passed out the lesser quality wine at the end when no one could tell the difference. Yet, when all of the supposedly good wine had been served and more was needed, Jesus turned water into wine and the quality of the wine was better than what the caterer had brought.

Maybe I am wrong about this but it seems to me that when John wrote about this episode in Jesus’ life, he was thinking about the differences in society, the same differences that exist in our society. There is a standard for the rich; there is a standard for the poor and lower class. We see it in the economic strata; we see it in the healthcare debate. No one who has power is willing to say that perhaps all the people deserve the good stuff. To borrow an analogy from modern day sports, this is not about a salary cap or a luxury tax on higher incomes; it is about each person being able to do the job they want to do and receiving a fair and equitable wage, one on which they can support a family.

John Wesley is probably shaking his head in sorrow. All the work that he did for all the people seems to have been thrown away. He probably cries when he sees those ministers with the six figure salaries asking people to send them more money with the vague promise of a greater return. He wonders why they remember that he said it was okay to earn whatever you could but forget that he also said don’t do it through the exploitation of workers or that he also encouraged saving all you could and giving all you could. The good stuff isn’t what you have; it is what you give away.

I know that some will say that the people getting the big bonuses are expecting them and that such bonuses are written into their performance contracts. So be it, but when your company is going bankrupt, are you still entitled to a bonus? Is it ethical for an executive of a company to earn more in a bonus than any of the workers employed by the same company may earn in their own lifetime? The good stuff is not something you have; it is who you are and what you are to be.

This is not about giving people a handout or a free ride; it is not about using Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “God helps those who help themselves,” and calling it Biblical. It is saying “allow us to recognize each others’ gifts and make sure that all have a chance to use those gifts to the best of their ability.”

Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who learn management skills deserve a pay rate almost twice that of those who taught them. Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who serve the food at the restaurant where you eat deserve a salary that is below poverty and 1/3 of what others make. Explain to me that those who do the scut work in hospitals can barely make it on what they are paid and then are ignored by the people who expect the hospitals to be clean when they come to visit.

This is an international issue as well. Terrorism finds its beginnings in overseas factories where workers are paid minimal wages for goods to be sold here in this country.

And while I may be angry at the discrepancy between salaries, the situation that we find ourselves is one which we have created ourselves. We no longer care about the quality of goods that we purchase, though we complain loudly about the lack of quality. All we want is cheap goods.

Our society has become a massive marketing tool. We have even decided that adding the word “Christian” to the label automatically makes it better. Several years ago, someone opened up a restaurant in Memphis and called it a Christian restaurant. It would be run by Christians and it would be a place where you could bring your family for music and entertainment and expect it to be good, clean entertainment (which it was). But it didn’t last long, not because it marketed itself as a Christian enterprise but rather because the food wasn’t that good. If your product is not very good, how can you expect it to stay in business?

And if we call ourselves a Christian nation or one with Christian roots, yet we treat our workers with indifference and disrespect, what can we expect to receive? There wasn’t, to my knowledge, a single member of the Memphis City Council who wasn’t a church-going man. And they would have told you that they believed in Christ and His message. But they had twisted the message to meet their views; they had twisted the message in order to maintain a political and racial divide amongst the people. They had twisted the message and convinced the people that theirs was the message that God intended for us to hear. There are those today who are doing and saying the same thing.

When you treat someone else in a manner less than you demand you be treated, what can you expect in the way of service and performance? What can you expect when you keep the rewards all for yourself? Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis because the city of Memphis had made it clear it did not consider the sanitation workers worthy employees.

The solution is a political one but the answer will not be found in Congress or any state legislature because we have told our Federal, state, and local legislatures that it is alright for you to take money from lobbyists as long as you don’t raise our taxes or put the burden on us; put it on someone else’s back. Politics comes from the people and the people will have to work out the answer; that makes it a social answer as well.

This is not a call for some radical new political party. Others are doing that now and it is simply an excuse for more of the same, of finding new excuses to keep the good stuff for one’s self.

It is, however, a call to stop and think about what you have done and what you are doing with what you have been given. Too many individuals have claimed the good stuff for themselves and are unwilling to share with others. We have seen what greed and avarice have done to our society and the world in which we live. As we move into this new decade, this unwillingness will do more to destroy the world than any weapon of mass destruction would ever do.

It is time that we stop and think about our relationship with God and with others. Our place in this world is determined by those relationships. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to each one of us individually; they put our life in terms of our relationship with God, not our relationship with others. It is a relationship determined by how we maximize the gifts that God has given us and not by the views of others.

In a world where money and power determined status and acclaim, Jesus showed the people of the Galilee that one’s worthiness was truly determined by their own personal relationship with God. Martin Luther King would come to Memphis for the same reason.

To be deemed worthy by God without regard to status is an important distinction. It gives meaning to life far more than any amount of material goods can do. A person will do the best job possible if they know they are respected for their efforts; that is the good stuff. To hoard material things and to measure one’s goodness by that amount of stuff is not; it’s that simple.

But the message heard first at the wedding in Cana and then echoed through the streets of London and Memphis is a message that we are all entitled to the good stuff because we are all equal in the eyes of God. Shall we continue the way that we are headed, knowing that trouble can only result? Or shall we continue the work that began at the wedding, worked through the streets of London and Memphis and ensure equality for all?

“Answering the Call”

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 January 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11.


By now you know that I got my doctorate for the University of Iowa and that my undergraduate degree was from Truman State University. To fill in the blanks, I would add that I hold a Masters in Education from the University of Missouri and that I graduated from Nicholas Blackwell High School in 1968.

Now, I am not sure that even my classmates would immediately identify the name of their high school alma mater. For the most part, we said we went to Bartlett High School and today that is the name on the building. In the papers, especially the sports section, we were identified as Memphis Bartlett, even though we were not part of Memphis or the Memphis City School system. But we were from Memphis, even if we did not want to admit it.

Your senior year in high school is supposed to be the greatest year of your life. It is the last year of innocence and freedom, just before you step into the world of work or go off to college. It is supposed to be a year of celebration. I say that because it seemed that there were no celebrations for the class of 1968. Yes, the football team had a winning season, going 5 and 4 after a dismal 1 and 8 performance the year before. But Bartlett wasn’t a football school; it was a basketball school and with a front line of 7′ 0", 6’6", and 6’4 and an all-state guard, we were looking to a banner year. The sports writers felt we were the best because they voted us the number 1 team in the state. But we lost in the regional tournament and two years of success were washed down the drain by loses before we even got to state. (It should be noted that in 2000, the Bartlett Panthers won the Tennessee State Basketball Championship, but that is of little consolation to those of us who saw glory in 68). Even the band had an off year. The year before the band accomplished a feat that no other Bartlett band had ever done; we won a band contest. In an environment where our forty-eight member marching band had to compete against bands with ninety-six and one hundred and twenty members, we actually won. But they changed the rules of the competition in our senior year and we returned to the ranks of also performing. The evening of our graduation was to be a night of dancing and celebration on the Mississippi River but it rained and the traditional senior party never really developed as it had for countless other Memphis high school graduating classes.

And there was another event in 1968 that tempered the celebration of a senior year. It was the same event for all the graduating classes, be they in Shelby County, Tennessee or here in Putnam County, New York. But it was a little different because it happened in Memphis and we lived in Memphis. Martin Luther King was shot to death in Memphis.

Dr. King came to Memphis to aid the sanitation workers in the fight for better working conditions. It is my understanding today that he initially didn’t want to come to Memphis; he was working on something bigger and he did not want to be taken away from those plans. But it was pointed out to him that you could not work on the grander and much broader plans if you ignored the small details. So he came; perhaps reluctantly, but he came.

Now I will admit that back then the situation involving the sanitation workers was not one of my priorities. My mind and heart were some 700 miles away in Kirksville; all I could think about during my two years at Bartlett was the return each summer to Kirksville and the college career that was developing for me there. I can also say that I have no idea what any of my white classmates were thinking in those days prior to Dr. King’s death. Some, I am sure, were totally unaware of what was going on; others, perhaps in the majority, thought Dr. King had no business coming to Memphis and "meddling" in a Memphis matter.

I do know that ours was a society split by race. The divisions were evident in everything we did in school. It was not just that we were the number one basketball team in the state; we were the best white team in the state (even if we had one black player on the team and whose presence was, I have always felt, arranged in defiance of eligibility rules). At that time, no Memphis area basketball team had won the state championship; in our junior year, they paired us against Carver High School with the winner going to the State Championship tournament. We could have both gone and improved the chances of a Memphis team winning. But the "powers that be" deemed that Bartlett should play Carver before the state tournament in order to prove a long forgotten point of pride. We lost that game, ending our season. It wasn’t all that bad a defeat; the nucleus of the Carver High School team went to the University of Memphis and in 1972 lost to UCLA in the finals of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. But it was still a defeat and it ended a good season on a sour note.

In sports and society Memphis was a divided city then and it is not much better now. Race, culture, creed, and economic status divided this country in 1968; and today, we are not much better off. We still see people oppressed because of who they are, what they believe, or where they live. The problems of the world make the words of Isaiah that much more prophetic. We cannot stand silent and stand by when others persecute or victimize someone else.

If we are who we say we are, then we can never lose sight of the fact that what Jesus preached, that his kingdom was open to all, his kingdom of spirit and truth was the mortal enemy of systems built on power, greed, oppression, and falsehood.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stood before the people and listed the Beatitudes. He said, "the merciful are partaking of the divine, for they shall receive mercy." We often see mercy as what one in power might extend to a victim in return for gratitude or service. We want our expressions of mercy to make us feel good; we want the recipient to be beholden to us. But that makes mercy cold and condescending.

Jesus made mercy warm and compassionate. As He expressed it, mercy was given but never bartered, never exchanged for something else. Mercy no longer was the act of pitching a coin to a beggar on the street but rather a new attitude towards life. The merciful will no longer see the beggar as a victim but as a brother or sister with whom life is to be shared.

But the sharing of physical resources will always be limited. And the merciful know this. They know that the physical things that they can give will eventually be used up. But the hunger and the thirst will never go away until the soul is fed and its thirst is quenched. Those who have expressed the hunger and thirsting of the soul know this best and they know that they, having been filled and given the water from the well of life to drink, have greater and truer riches.

But if they keep this spiritual richness hidden; in other words, if they see the beggar as the victim to give things to, then they will ultimately lose the riches they tried so long to find. John the Evangelist wrote, "Whoever has the physical necessities of life and sees his brother standing in need and locks the door of his heart against him, how can the love of God stay in him?" (1 John 3: 17)

You will note that today I have changed the order of the worship service around a bit. The order that we follow each Sunday follows what the order of worship that I grew up and have used ever since I started preaching. It puts the offering first and allows the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word.

If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.

But the fact is that we cannot wait until some great and unseen sign appears before us to use those gifts. Jesus went with his mother to a wedding. Weddings then were multi-day affairs. How the wedding was catered was an expression of the financial status of the bride and groom; to run out of wine early in the celebration, as was indicated in the Gospel story, was a major social faux pax.

It may have been that Martin Luther King did not want to go to Memphis; but the situation and the cause demanded his presence. It may be that my mind was elsewhere when I was a senior in high school; but the Lord has asked me to do his work now. Jesus did not want to do as His mother wanted him, saying that it wasn’t time. Maybe He felt that being among friends and relatives were neither the time and place; but he did as his mother asked and the water was changed to wine. He was not being selfish or showing off; the people didn’t even know what he had done. But the work of the Lord, the presence of the Lord is never dictated by time or place. The presence of the Kingdom of Heaven was first expressed among friends and family.

God’s call will come to you in much the same manner. God will not ask you to do great things on the world stage; He may simply want you to make a phone call to friend you haven’t seen in a long time. He may want you to write to a few people who haven’t been to church in quite some time. The call will come in a way that can never be expected. It is clear from the reading of the Gospel that the steward overseeing the wedding feast did not expect such a good wine.

So God is calling you and today is your chance to answer the call.

"Just Doing It Doesn’t Require a New Pair of Shoes”

Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 14 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11.


When I started attending Truman State University back in 1966, the first thing that I did was transfer my membership from Wright City United Methodist Church to First United Methodist Church of Kirksville. Now, in retrospect, that may have been a little presumptuous of me to do so. Neither my family nor I had any idea at that time that I would stay in the Kirksville area beyond those first three summer months of my college career. But at the time, it seemed a most reasonable decision.

It should be noted that my decision to join 1st UMC was also a practical one. Given a choice, I would have rather attended Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church. Remember this was two years before the merger of the Methodist and EUB churches and though I was a Methodist, it was because I had transferred my membership from the Evangelical United Brethren church. In my heart I was still an EUB and that was where I really wanted my membership.

But as a fifteen-year-old without a driver’s license, let alone a car, if I wanted to go anywhere in the town of Kirksville, I had to walk. And from what I knew about the town of Kirksville, the walk from the dormitories on campus to Faith church was more of a country hike. So, for practical reasons, I attended 1st UMC, even if my heart wanted me to go to the smaller country church.

Some twenty years later, when I was living in Minnesota and just beginning my lay speaking activities at Grace UMC, I had the opportunity to preach at Faith Church, now a part of the UMC connection. I pointed out at that time that I was able to come to Faith through Grace and then I related the story about that first summer. After the service, a member of the congregation who had been a member back then came up to me and said, "You could have called. We would have been glad to come and get you."

It may seem like a little thing but the simple act of choosing a church to be a member of can have lasting consequences. Going to 1st Church gave me the opportunity to meet Dr. Meredith Eller, who along with his wife sponsored me as I joined the church. Dr. Eller was the professor from whom I would take all of my history courses and later serve as a councilor during times of crisis. When I got to see him in his academic robes, I kidded him about how frayed and worn they looked especially when you compared them with the robes of his other academic colleagues. It was then that I learned that Dr. Eller was not only a history professor but also a member of the United Methodist Clergy, serving many of the smaller churches around Kirksville. His robes were frayed because they were working robes, not the traditional ceremonial robes of academia. And today you know what the results of that first encounter with a Methodist circuit rider back then, subtle and unstated as it was, are.

We all have choices to make. Our whole culture is based on the idea of the choices we make. And it is implied in the messages we hear that the choices we make will decide the type of life we will live. To many in school today, life is not about the grades you make or what you learn but rather what you are wearing or what you listen to.

Even Jesus had to make choices. After John baptized Him, Jesus spent the forty days in the wilderness where the devil tempted Him. It would have been quite easy for Jesus to have forsaken all that was before Him and taken the devil’s offer of power and glory. But the power and the glory that devil offered could never match the power and the glory of God’s kingdom and Jesus chose to take the path that lead to Calvary.

At the wedding feast in Cana, the subject of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus had to make a choice as well.

Mary’s forwardness in asking Jesus to help when the wine ran out would suggest that she was in some way related to the family holding the wedding. Jesus and the disciples were there probably because Mary was there..

Hospitality then was a sacred duty. A wedding feast often lasted for a week and to run out of wine at such an important event would have been humiliating for both the bride and the groom. It is likely that neither they nor their families were wealthy and thus, the feast was a "low-budget" one.

Though at first reading it doesn’t seem so, Jesus’ response of "Woman" was one of respectful address. But He was simply stating that now was not the time for public miracles. But while His response would seem to have indicated that he wasn’t going to do anything about it, her actions seem to say that she did expect Him to do something.

This is an interesting passage. It is one of the most frequently mentioned, yet most neglected, stories of Jesus. For one thing it gives us an insight into the relationship between a mother and her son. She asks him to help. He at first hesitates and seems to refuse. She persists, and in the end, Jesus chose to perform his first miracle.

Isaiah’s message was also about choice. Isaiah pointed out to the people of Israel that God chose them. They weren’t picked out because they were the most wonderful people on the earth but rather because they were among the lowliest. And in a time of the Babylonian exile, a time of rejection and humiliation, God reminded them that there would be a time of great celebration and rejoicing.

Paul wrote about choosing and the results of those choices. Paul indicated that if the Corinthians chose to worship other idols, they could not expect much. For the idols that they might pray to were incapable of answering. But if the Corinthians chose to follow Jesus and to accept the Holy Spirit, then many gifts could be expected.

The gifts that Paul refers to are the capacities, spiritual and otherwise, that God gives each of us. It is important to note that Paul speaks of the many ways that the Spirit can be used in us, yet it is the same Spirit that unifies us. But the skills and gifts that are given cannot be given unless we allow the Spirit to come into our lives.

One of the early Nike advertisements for their "Air Jordan" shoes implied that it was the shoes that gave Michael Jordan his wondrous talents and abilities. And it seemed like every kid in America had to have those shoes, no matter if they could afford them or not. But it wasn’t the shoes that enabled Michael Jordan to play the level of basketball that he did. His gift of playing basketball was a combination of talent and drive, things that come from other sources. The problem is that we are never asked to utilize our own talents but rather what others think our talents might be.

Each of us has a gift and each gift adds spice to life and enhances the flavor of the church. One of things that I never quite got used to while living in the dormitories at Truman, and I am sure that you all would agree with this, was the food. It wasn’t always that bad but it was never something that you really looked forward to eating. It was institutional food and always seemed to lack something.

The same is true about the church today. A church that demands the same from all of its members will not be a vital church for it will be missing something. The gifts that each of us have because how the Spirit has filled us are those missing parts.

The world around us asks us to make choices. We have chosen to be here this morning. I know that I am a Methodist today not only because I saw in the Methodist movement how society could be affected because of how it allowed me to related to God. There came a time when I found it difficult to get up on Sunday and make that walk of ten or fifteen blocks from the campus to First Church. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go but rather that I didn’t want to dress up. And back then I thought that wearing a coat and tie were an integral part of church attendance. Now, of course, I do it without hesitation but back then, I was looking for ways to go to church in blue jeans and tennis shoes.

I could have gone to the Newman Center for morning services for I need that priest there was, in the vernacular of the time, "cool" and he wasn’t offended by casual attire. But I also knew that he wouldn’t let me take communion because I wasn’t Catholic. And somehow I thought that was wrong. But those were the rules that he worked by and, if I wanted to attend his services, I had to play by his rules.

Those aren’t the rules of the Methodist Church and I hope they never are. As will be said shortly, communion in the United Methodist Church is an open table. You come to the table of your own choice and only you can prevent yourself from coming. All that is asked is that you open your heart to Christ.

If we are to be true to our heritage as Methodists, then we need to realize that the words that Mary said to the servants that day in Cana apply to us today.

Mary told the servants at the wedding to "Do what he tells you." The early Methodist movement also produced a community that transformed their world, "doing what he told them." They visited the prisons of their day, formed schools, fed the hungry, opposed slavery, and prayed unceasingly because that is what they felt was the way to spread the Gospel.

The call for us today comes in part from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. From the Book of Worship comes the following prayer,

We remember the conviction of Martin Luther King, Jr. that "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Therefore, let us pray for courage and determination by those who are oppressed.

We remember Martin’s warning that "a negative peace which is the absence of tension" is less than "a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world may cry out first for justice.

We remember Martin’s insight that "injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." Therefore, let us pray that we may see nothing in isolation, but may know ourselves bound to one another and to all people under heaven.

We remember Martin’s lament that "the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are." Then let us pray that neither this congregation nor any congregation of Christ’s people may be silent in the face of wrong, but that we may be disturbers of the status quo when that is God’s call to us.

We remember Martin’s "hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." Therefore, in faith, let us commend ourselves and our work for justice to the goodness of almighty God. (From The United Methodist Book of Worship, page 435-436. The quotations were "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. The litany was written by W. B. McClain and L. H. Stookey.)

The choices that we make have lasting consequences on our lives. The effects that we have on others are felt long after we are gone. We don’t need a new pair of shoes in order to do the work of Christ in this world. All we need is an open heart and a willingness to let Christ in.

No, I Can’t and Neither Should You

Here are my thoughts for this 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
It was the opening words of Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading (1) that got my attention. I know that I spend a lot of time writing and speaking about my childhood and how I perceived many of the social problems that came with growing up in the South during the Sixties.

I may not have completely understood what was happening back then but as the years went by, especially when I was in junior high school and high school, it became apparent that there was a system involved and it was a system that worked against people, not for people. So, slowly and surely, I have begun to speak out. For what I see in the world today tells me that we have not learned the lessons of the past and are bound and determined to repeat the same mistakes of oppression and inequality.

And growing in an environment that encouraged thinking (for which I must thank my parents), I have to cry out and not keep silent when people seek to create churches that reject the poorest and the lowest. I have to cry out and I cannot keep silent when scientists attempt to say that there is no place for religion in the coming years.

There is an electronic magazine called “Edge” (2) that I receive each month. It provides some interesting reading, especially at the beginning of the year when the editors ask readers to respond to a particular question. For 2007, the question was “What are you optimistic about and why?” Many of the 160 responses that were included were, if you will, optimistic in the view of what was to come in the next few years.

But I was very much disturbed by the comments from two of the respondents.

Philosopher Daniel Denett believes that within 25 years religion will command little of the awe it seems to instill today. The spread of information through the internet and mobile phones will “gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance”.

Biologist Richard Dawkins said that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein’s dream of unifying the fundamental laws of physics. “This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.”… (2)

Now, I must admit that I am not familiar with Daniel Denett’s work but Richard Dawkins is the one who has written several books that argue against the presence or existence of God.

While I have not read what Dawkins has written, I have seen the synopsis of his work. I am not sure why he has taken the approach that he has taken (but I suppose that I would if I had read some of his work). But it strikes me from the perfunctory readings that I have made that they are confusing science with scientism.

Scientism is the belief that nothing is real in the world except that which can be observed and measured. Those that hold this belief believe that science is the means to absolute truth, even if the absolute truth is that all things are relative or that there is no meaning in life. While science relies on empirical observations to describe the world, it does not seek to add meaning to what it finds. Science can easily tell a person why the aurora borealis forms but it cannot explain why one can explain the awe and wonder that accompanies such sights.

Scientism goes beyond an understanding of the role of science in society. In some ways, scientism has become the religion of secular consciousness. Its supporters attempt to do what it accuses religion of doing, supplying a faith system. (3)

I think that it is possible to be both a scientist and religious. After all, I have been both for most of my life and I know others who easily follow religious orders while maintaining interest and activity in science. So I cannot stand back and stay silent when someone says that religion will disappear in the coming years.

Of course, those on the religious side who argue for Intelligent Design and a complete distrust of the scientific method do not help matters either. If you pursue a path that denigrates or reduces science to medieval superstition, then you are no better than those who would do the same to science.

The problem for those in the modern church is that people today see church as an exclusionary and oppressive organization that speaks one language but holds to another. It does not help that there are pastors today, just as in the Sixties, who used the Bible to justify racism and sexism. If this is all the public sees, it will be the view that they have.

As Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today (4), we have kept the good stuff for ourselves and not shared it with others. We know that the fruits of the Gospel make the future possible but we are not always willing to help others to share in the Good News that the Gospel brings. We hide the good stuff and say to those outside the walls of the church that they can’t have what we have because they are not worthy. But then again, we are not worthy either. And when we hide what we know from others, we are at risk of not having anything.

But how do we let others know of the Good News? How do we let others know of the saving Grace found in the Gospel? Paul, writing to the Corinthians (5), noted that everyone has a particular gift and each person’s gift is different. And since we have these gifts, we should be using them to the Glory of the Lord.

We look around and we see injustice in the world. We look around and we see people oppressed. We look around and see people hungry, sick, and cold. We can walk on by and say nothing. But Martin Niemöller reminds us

First They Came for the Jews
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I am reminded also that Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and bring hope to the oppressed. I am also reminded that we are charged with that same task today. So, I cannot keep quiet when it comes to speaking out. And neither should you.
(1) Isaiah 62: 1 – 5
(2) http://www.edge.org/
(3) Adapted from The Left Hand of God, Michael Lerner (page 130 – 133)
(4) John 2: 1 – 11
(5) 1 Corinthians 12: 1 -11