How has baptism changed your life?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (A), 12 March 2017.  They are based on Psalm 13.  This is also part of the Fishkill UMC “Back Pages” series.


I have talked and written about my own baptism on a number of occasions; I have also included a discussion about a baptism that didn’t take place (See “My Two Baptisms” for what happened then; I will be addressing that topic again later in this Lenten series.)

To answer the question posted as the title to the post, It is safe to say that had I not been baptized, I would not be here today.  But because of when I was baptized, a path was set before me that I would, sometimes knowingly but often unknowingly, follow all my life.

My parents understood what my baptism meant and they made sure that I walked a path that would eventually allow me to understand it baptism meant.

There was a time in my life that I have come to call “my wilderness period.”  Life was rough during this period but I never felt lost.  Perhaps it was because the Holy Spirit was a part of life, even if I did not know it.

But when I more fully recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, I knew had to do some things, things that have lead me to this place and time.  I was lucky; I knew that God was there and all I had to do was look.

The Psalmist knew what it was like to be lost and out of God’s site.  He welcomed being able to be in God’s Grace once again.

Our baptism is never the end of the journey but its beginning.  For some, it sets the path they will follow; for others, it offers a new path.

Baptism represents an opportunity for all.

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The Paradox Of Vision


A Meditation for 21 February 2016, the 2nd in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18, Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1, and Luke 13: 31 – 35

There is something of a paradox in the Old Testament reading for this morning. God tells Abram to look in the sky and count the stars and he, Abram, will know how many descendants he will have. In other words, as Abram looks at the stars, he will be seeing the future. Of course, we know today that when we look at the stars, we are, in actuality, looking into the deep and far past.

And I believe that qualifies as a paradox. If a paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself, then one cannot look at the stars and see both the future and the past. I would think that it is somewhat similar to the Schrödinger’s cat problem.

This is a problem in quantum physics derived by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935 to illustrate some of the problems dealing with the topic of quantum mechanics (or the workings of the atom) in physics. Essentially, one had to make a choice about what was to happen and nothing happens until one makes a choice.

How do we see the world today? Are we more interested in the past when the pews were filled, people were joining the church without much effort, there was a Sunday school class for every grade from kindergarten through sixth grade, there were programs for the junior high and high school students. The adult choir sang every Sunday and the children and youth choirs sang once a month. The stewardship campaign always ended with enough pledges to meet the goals of the budget, the bills were paid on time, and there was even enough money left over each month to support some actual mission work.

Now, if there was ever such a church or its counterparts, it doesn’t exist today. With few exceptions, most churches are losing members and Sunday school programs are almost non-existent. Instead of discussions on growth, church financial discussions focus on where to cut expenses in order to pay the bills; mission support is often an after-thought and membership plans are very seldom discussed because no one is moving into the area. It becomes very difficult to look to the future when looking at the present is difficult enough.

But if you went back and looked at the plans of those churches which are thriving today, you would see that their focus was not on the past or the present but, rather, the future.

I know of one church in my home town of Memphis that saw the future very clearly. The church leadership knew that the majority of members lived outside the traditional area in which the church was located and more and more of the membership was moving away from the city. So this church made the decision to buy property in the area where the members lived and sell the city property (ironically, to a church of another denomination seeking to expand its presence in the city).

And then there is the story of the Clifton Presbyterian Church. In a sermon I gave several years ago (“What Do We Need?”) I spoke of how the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, responded to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it became a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time found a way out of their homelessness and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation (The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in “What Do We Need?” no longer works but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry).

I also talked about a woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “A Different Sense Of Community”)

Side note – I have been part of something similar called the InterFaith Hospitality Network. It is a program that offers homeless families temporary housing while the families seek suitable housing. These are families where both parents work and yet do not earn enough to have suitable housing. The sad part about this is that the churches of which I was a member were covertly opposed to the idea of providing shelter for homeless families. Let us just say that the vision of these churches where I was a member was rather limited and short-sighted.

As long as we are fixed on the past or if we try to stay in the present, we will never be able to do the same. If the church we seek is a church based on the past, we will never achieve it. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said, “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, which would say that we cannot even maintain the present state of the church, for that too quickly passes.

Now, we know that when the Pharisees come to tell Jesus that Herod is looking to kill Him, Jesus responded in a way that suggested He was more worried about the future than He was the present.

What we have to understand is that Christ never had anything but the future on His mind. His mind was always fixed on what it would take to complete the mission.

Paul makes the same case for the future, imploring the Philippians to look to the future and not be distracted by those whose focus is on today (or perhaps yesterday). As Paul pointed out, it is very easy to focus on the present because it is right here, right now. And it is easier to focus on the past because we know (or we think we know what is there).

It is much harder to focus on the future because there is a large amount of uncertainty or doubt about what the future holds. And following Christ, as Paul points out, is not exactly an easy thing to do.

If we think that we can somehow maintain the status quo, then we will be quickly swept downstream by the river of time. And if we focus on the past, then we will quickly lost sight of the present. Only by focusing on the future are we able to move forward.

Either through ignorance or fear, there are those who will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. But they will quickly find the forces of time working against them.

Our hope for the church and for ourselves is know where we are today, what resources we have, and then determine how we can accomplish the goals of Christ’s mission on this earth today.

The paradox is that if we do not look to the future, then it is very likely that we cannot see the present. Jesus understood very clearly that His future would lead to the Cross. Our future lies beyond the Cross, if only we choose to look in that direction.

If we choose to look to the past or solely at the present, then we will be among those who are lost.

“Where Are You Going?”


Here is the message I gave for the morning worship at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, February 23, 2013. I based this message on the Scriptures for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-21; Philippians 3:17-4:1; and Luke 13:31-35. I emphasized the reading from Philippians.

Writing these Saturday messages is interesting. The people who come are not always interested in the message, desiring more the food that is offered. They perhaps have only a basic understanding of the Bible, Christianity, and Methodism; there is also the possibility that they have rejected the church, both the traditional and non-traditional forms. To preach the same message that one would preach to a Sunday morning service doesn’t always work. It may very similar to what transpired for John Wesley when he moved from the prepared multi-hour sermon of the Anglican church to the extemporaneous sermon of the fields and factories.

If you are interested in giving the message some Sunday morning, let me know (either through my regular e-mail – TonyMitchellPhD “at” optimum.net or on Facebook). Dates in March are still open and I will be opening up April in a couple of weeks. We open the Kitchen (and please do not even think of this as a traditional or typical “soup kitchen” because it is most definitely not that) at 8. After everyone has settled in, we offer this worship and then begin serving. We will serve until around 9:45 or when we run out of food. We close the doors at 10.

To me, this time of Lent is a time of a journey; of a change sometimes in place that we are but most definitely a change in who we are. Many people are uncomfortable with those changes, never wanting to move from where they are and, most definitely, never wanting to change who they are.

Perhaps that is why we have this season called Lent and why it takes some forty days to prepare for Easter. To change who we are is not always an overnight thing but one that requires time and focus. Paul writes the Philippians and tells them that those who are more concerned with the material world or life on easy street are headed in the wrong direction.

As I read those words that Paul wrote, I wondered about who he was talking about. Most of the people I know would tell you that life is nowhere near an easy street and that life is a struggle. But I know many people who will tell you that you have to grab everything that you can because you don’t have too many chances in life. And it is what you have that, in the end, counts the most.

We all know people like this. Interestingly enough, it is a broad spectrum of individuals. It is the individual who stole a radio out of my car many years ago. I don’t know what drove him to do it but I am pretty sure that the word desperate would have been involved. For this individual did it between 2 and 5 in the morning on a night when it was something like -20o F. And, yes, when I went out to my car that morning to go to work and school, I was mad and angry. But I also had to smile a little bit because I am not sure what that individual was going to get for his efforts; I know that he probably took it to a pawn shop somewhere but how much was he going to get for a tape player that didn’t work? For all his efforts, this individual probably didn’t get much in return.

But is also those individuals who say that they are Christian but who are unwilling to do the things that come with saying that they believe. I haven’t quite figured out how to respond to these individuals but I should because there are so many of them. They have no desire to come close to the Cross because it means to them that they must give up everything that they have gathered together. How are they any different from the people Paul writes about who are only interested in their bellies and their appetites?

But what is that you have “in the end?” Paul also wrote, to the effect, that if you have everything but your soul is empty then you have absolutely nothing.

That’s why Paul also speaks of one’s life in Christ. Paul does not want people to follow him but to follow Christ because in doing so, their lives are transformed from the mundane and boring to the beautiful and exciting.

I was introduced to a saying yesterday that goes like this, “Christ is in each one of us; we just have to recognize Him.”

When Ann opened up “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” it was with the purpose of feeding people. But it was to be more than just a quick breakfast. Some people come here on Saturday morning expecting something entirely different from what they get. But that is because of how we see this kitchen and how we see our lives in Christ.

How you see this kitchen depends on where you are in this journey called Lent and in your own life. You can see this place as a good place to get food on a Saturday morning and that is fine. But we hope that you see this place as a place where not only your physical body but your soul is feed as well.

How you see others depends on how you see yourself. You have the opportunity this day to decide which way you want to go in your own personal journey. You have the opportunity this day to decide that you want to change your life.

Next Saturday, as you are preparing to come to this place once again, someone may ask where you are going. I know that many of you will say that you are going to get a good breakfast at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen; but I would also hope that you are saying that you are going to a fellowship of people gathered together to find and know Christ.

Where are you going this day? Where are you going tomorrow? That is what this journey is about.

“A Very Simple Lesson”


I was at the Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 March 2011).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 – 4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.  The services at Mountainville start at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  This coming Sunday, March 27th,at 3 pm they are hosting a hymn sing for the Habitat for Humanity project in the Newburgh, NY, area.  There is a flyer about the program included in this post.

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Way back in 1963 or so, I got a chance to stay up late one night and watch the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. That night he introduced, at least to me, a rising new comic. I can’t remember, for a variety of reasons, if this was the first time this comic had been on the show. I just know that I found Bill Cosby to be a very funny fellow indeed. Later, when I could, I would buy all of his comedy albums and would use his telling of the conversation between Noah and God for a vespers moment at the Wesley Foundation while a student in college (Truman State University).

But it is something else that he recorded that prompted my recollection of a moment in time almost fifty years ago. He spoke of the time when he began kindergarten and how the teacher taught them that 1 and 1 was 2. And how he and his compatriots all thought how cool it was that 1 and 1 equaled 2. But then they asked that telling question, “What’s a 2?”

I think it is important to think about such moments because they remind us that all of the lessons we have learned in our life have been remarkably simple ones. If you stop to think about it, each time that we have learned something, it has been the result of a simple lesson. Granted, it may not have seemed simple at the time and the topic may have been remarkably complex but the lesson itself was very simple. It was simple because it built upon all that we knew up to that point and utilized the skills and abilities that we were taught as well.

But I think that we have forgotten those early lessons. We seemed bound and determined to make each of life’s lessons a lesson in simplicity, even if the material in question is extremely complex. The events of the past two week, all that has transpired in Japan and the Middle East, speak to our desire to turn extremely complex lessons into simple ones.

If you think about it, much of what has transpired in the past two weeks or so has dealt with energy and how we obtain it. We are an energy dependent society. Take away our energy resources and life would be very, very difficult; we could survive but not as we live today.

We have become a society dependent on oil as the basis for our energy. Because the source of the oil that is so much a part of our lives is located in other countries, we turn a blind eye to governments who suppress the rights of the people. We support the military of such governments because we want the oil supply protected. It would seem, also, that we are willing to go to war if need be to insure that oil supplies are available.

The answer that some offer is to drill for more oil in this country or find ways to extract the oil, natural gas and coal that is underground. We ignore what these processes do to the environment and the drinking water because cheap oil and gas is more important than clean air or clean water. We ignore the scientific results that time and time again show that our dependence on fossil fuels is having a negative effect on the climate of this planet. (Notes from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

We are beginning to see, I believe, what happens when we put profit before safety in the production of energy. We may be shocked that Japan, the only country on this planet to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons, would willingly let nuclear reactors operate within the boundaries of their country. But, if we remember our history, we know that it is a country without energy resources of its own and nuclear power is a reasonable alternative. But the problems with the reactors were not problems with nuclear energy but the short-sightedness of management in putting the profit of the company before the safety of the people.

As it happens, I believe that nuclear power is a reasonable alterative energy resource for the future of this planet. But I am also aware that a commitment to nuclear energy is not simply a fifty-year commitment nor a 100 year commitment but one that will last 10,000 years or so. And it is a commitment to the safety of the people. If you are willing to make that commitment, it becomes a viable energy resource; if you are not, then you must find other alternatives.

And there are other alternatives. But each one requires a long-term commitment. Solar energy is out there right now but how do you store it so that it can be used at night? How about using the wind to make energy? Again, what do you do when the wind is not blowing? Each alternative energy resource has a trail of thought that make the simple lesson complicated. And if we are not willing to make the commitment, we will find out quite quickly that the simple lessons we seek don’t exist.

The church has found itself caught up in that same sort of thinking. We would like Christianity to be very simple. I mean all we have to do is say that Christ is our Savior, come to church on Sunday, try to have good thoughts about people, and be appropriately horrified when evil things occur in the world. Maybe, if we have some spare change or a couple extra dollars, we will give it to the latest UMCOR relief effort. But we will leave it up to the pastor and the missionaries to do the work of God; after all, that’s what they get paid for, right?

Somewhere along the line, we forgot something. Or maybe we never learned it properly. Jesus may have left us with the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But we forgot what it means to be a disciple.

In today’s society, it means forcing people to believe in Jesus. It means telling them that they are condemned to a live in Sheol if they do not, right then and there, accept Christ as their Savior. It means telling them that there is only one way to believe in God and that is the Christian way, even when they already believe in that God their own way.

But the word “disciple” means more of a student than a follower. If the commission is to go out and make students of the people of the world, then it makes each one of us a teacher; it means that we have to live a life that embodies the life of Christ. It means that we have to take to our heart the words and actions of Jesus when He began His ministry, of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, finding homes for the homeless (see the attached flyer) and setting the oppressed free. And suddenly a very simple statement, a very simple lesson becomes very, very complicated.

(Comment – this church just happens to be sponsoring a hymn sing for the local Habitat for Humanity program – see the accompanying flyer)

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It bothers me that we say that we are a Christian nation but we are quick to blame poverty on the sins of the poor. We say that we are a Christian nation but we are not willing to find ways to keep people healthy. We would rather find ways to let a few people gather up all the wealth on this planet instead of making sure that all people have an opportunity. We would rather support dictatorships and oppressive governments if doing so allows us to keep our own selfish interests intact.

We have found a way to make the lesson of Lent a very easy one, not a simple one. We publically announce that we are giving up such-and-such for Lent, knowing full well that once Easter has passed we will resume that habit. We have forgotten that Lent is a season of preparation. And though Lent may be over in forty days, our lives go on after the season is done.

So perhaps now is the time to think about Lent and the lesson that we should be learning. Nicodemus comes to Jesus late one night, fearful of what others in his community might think and say if they knew he was seeking wisdom, guidance, and counsel from this itinerant teacher from the Galilee. He knows that there is something about Jesus that is different from the other teachers who have appeared on the scene and then quickly disappeared from view.

He also knows that something is gnawing on him instead; something that tells him that there is something wrong with his life, that leading a life bound by a strict obedience to the law will not give him what he seeks in life. And when he asks Jesus, he gets a very simple answer, “you must be born again.” But his mind tells him that one cannot be born again, one cannot start life over again as a child; it just isn’t possible. But Jesus offers another alternative, of seeing the world another way.

Look at what Paul said about Abraham. Abraham said that he was the father of us all but if we see that only in terms of biological relationships, as saying that I am the son of Robert Mitchell or that he was the son of Walter Mitchell, then we are seeing it backwards. Paul’s point is that Abraham made a decision to follow God’s command in faith.

Stop and think about it; he was pushing 100 and Sarah was 90-something and God said that He would make Abraham the father of many nations. No wonder Sarah laughed. Abraham began a journey to a place that he did not know by a route that he did not know so that peoples not even born would be blessed. It was and is a journey of faith.

We are at that same point in our own life, to look at where we are and where we are headed. We are being called, not by me but by God to stop and change the direction of our lives, to begin again (to be born again, if you will), to head off into a new direction or to do something that you didn’t think you could do on the simple statement that great things will come because of it.

This is a hard thing for many people to do; it is a hard thing for churches to do. We look around and we wonder what will happen. Through some of the work in my district, I know that there are many churches struggling with their finances. And it is very difficult to make a journey in faith when the finances tell you to stay put. But I also know that there are churches who have made a decision based on faith and have carried out their decision and have been rewarded. I have watched two separate churches in two separate conferences, both behind in paying their apportionments (and I know that the subject of apportionments is a sore subject with many, especially those who do not understand what apportionments are other than a bill from the conference) make the decision to put 10% of the weekly offering into paying the apportionments. And when the end of that year came around, both churches had not only paid their apportionments in full but were one month ahead for the next year. But I also know of a church that would not make that faith journey, who put its hopes in its traditional “fund-raisers” and will soon close its doors.

And we are told of the one single faith journey taking place in our own lives today. It is not the journey that we are making but rather the one that Jesus made for us some two thousand years ago. How many times did Jesus speak of His own death, of His own sacrifice so that we would live? What must have been going through His mind that day when He told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he would send His Only Begotten Son so that whoever believed in Him would have everlasting life.

That is perhaps the simplest lesson we are ever asked to learn. But it is, for many, the most difficult. It means giving up your present life, of leading your present life and beginning anew. And that is the call today. For some, it is to begin anew; to be, like Nicodemus, born again. For others, it is to begin, as Abram did, a new journey or new tasks that will enable others to know who Christ is and will be. The lesson has been taught for today, class is dismissed. Now the learning begins.

“How Will You Get There?”


This is the message that I gave for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 February 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.

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It has been said that the average American moves three times in their life. For my two brothers, sister, and myself, this is an interesting statistic since we made that many moves by the time we were each three years old. As the children of a career Air Force officer, it was not uncommon for us to move each year (a policy that the Air Force and other armed services has changed in the past few years).

Moving a family of four according to Air Force rules was a task that fell to my mother. Essentially all my father did was come home, tell us we had been transferred to another air base and when he had to be on duty at that base. It was up to Mom to pack up the stuff in the house, get the movers over, take the kids and occasional dog to the new location, find the house we were assigned (when we lived in on-base housing), meet the movers and unpack the stuff.

Every time I read the Old Testament reading for today, I am reminded of this process. Abram is told by God to pack up everything and head east to the Promised Land. To do so was not all that difficult because his was a nomadic lifestyle anyway and he and his family could easily make the move. The only problem they had is that they had no knowledge of what would be there when they did in fact arrive; how, would they know when they had reached the Promised Land?

For my family, the move to a new location was a matter of duty. The Air Force said that we had to be there, so wherever it was, we went there. We knew that we would have a house to live in when we got to our new home. Abram’s move was a matter of faith; he, Abram, believed in God and God said move eastward to a new location, so he moved. Since they took their home with them, having a place to stay was not a problem.

But in today’s society, having a home to live in is not an easy task. Homeownership has long been thought to be a right in our society; but not everyone who works can afford a place to live. There is an interesting statistic these days that says that it takes 144 hours of work at the minimum wage in order to find any sort of affordable housing.  (Page 228 of God’s Politics (Jim Wallis) – he cites "Out of Reach 2003: America’s Housing Wage Climbs," National Low Income Housing Coalition, September 2003, http://www.nlihc.org/oor2003/data.php?getmsa=on&msa%B%D=denver&state%B%D=CO)  If you do the math, you can figure out that there are 168 hours in a week.

For New York, someone earning $6.00 per hour, can afford monthly rent of no more than $312. This means that this individual must work 121 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent. The housing wage, the amount a full-time worker (40 hours per week) must earn earn in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent is $18.18 per hour.

We have just completed a political campaign unlike no other in the history of this country. One of the points/issues that people used in deciding how they would vote was something called "moral values." But every time this was discussed, it was described in terms of sexuality and abortion. But the primary moral value cited in the Bible is the care of the poor and the oppressed; and little was done or said during this last campaign in that regard.

I suppose that it is because many people feel that if one works hard and full-time, you need not be poor. But for many working families and many low-income breadwinners, it is necessary to hold down multiple jobs just to survive. The truth is that the safety net that is supposed to protect people has been taken down over the past few years. The number of hungry without food stamps is on the rise; the number of poor and low-income children without health insurance is rising; the disparity between the schools where the parents have a high income and the parents have a low income is constantly increasing. Yet, the treatment of the poor is not considered important enough for a sustained political debate.

In a political debate, where the Bible is used by one side to justify its claim of moral values, there were over eighty references to the poor in the Bible. There is the reference of Jesus rebuking Peter when Peter complained about the extravagant use of oil by the un-named woman in Matthew 26.

And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor."

But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always but Me you do not have always. (Matthew 26: 6 – 11)

It would be nice to say that we are a society that cares for the poor, the needy, the oppressed but the facts suggest otherwise. It would be nice if we could say that we no longer believe that poverty is a result of sin but we cannot, even if that were the case. No matter that we somehow still believe that working hard will get us into heaven, even when we are told that it is only by our faith that such entrance is granted. In a world where we argue for free will, we still seem stuck in a Calvinist concept that sin and salvation are predetermined.

But if sin and salvation are predetermined, then professing one’s belief in Christ, trusting in one’s faith is absolutely meaningless. Because if sin and salvation are predetermined, it does not matter what we do for we are either saved or doomed. But we accept as the basis of faith that Christ died for us and that we can come to Christ, openly accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. It is not who we are on this earth that brings us heaven and salvation; it is what we believe.

And if what we believe is that anyone can get to heaven through the profession of faith, then we must help them overcome that which blocks them from doing so. We are Methodists because we believe 1) that all can be saved, 2) all can know that they are saved, and 3) persons and nations can be saved from the power of sin. In a world that placed a premium on societal standing as the key to heaven, John Wesley refuted and contested that thought.

We have heard this morning about Habitat for Humanity. I became aware of this organization through a book that I had to read for one of my lay speaker courses. In this book I came to know Clarence Jordan, one of God’s "misfits". Just as John Wesley had done some two hundred and fifty years ago, Clarence Jordan saw that there was a difference between the nature of the Gospel as written in the Bible and what people said and believed. Rather than simply accept society’s notion of the Gospel, he chose to let Jesus guide and direct him through the Holy Spirit.

And one day Millard Fuller came into Clarence Jordan’s life; or more to the point Clarence Jordan came into Millard Fuller’s life. Taking the advice of Jordan (that what the poor need is not charity but capital and not caseworkers but coworkers and that the rich need an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance), Fuller created Habitat for Humanity.

Jesus chastised His disciples when they ignored the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. Wesley once wrote that it was impossible for the poor to concentrate on salvation if they were hungry or cold. So too must we look at what we do and how we express our faith. For it is not what we do that determines our faith but rather how we express our faith that shows others what we believe.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night, asking how he can gain the kingdom of God. And Jesus says that he, Nicodemus must be born again. But Nicodemus confuses the physical act of birth with the spiritual act of accepting the Holy Spirit. Locked into an old style of thinking, Nicodemus cannot see that Jesus is calling for a new life and a new way of thinking. In a world that demands a reliance on the here and now, Jesus speaks of something beyond the physical.

It is by faith that we are saved; it is by faith that we are literally able to move mountains. Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to leave his ancestral home and move eastward to the Promised Land? Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to become Abraham and the father of many nations? Paul makes it very clear that those who hold to the law, that is to say, to the here and now, are not going to be saved. What Paul told the Romans, what Paul writes to us today is that it is our faith and the expression of that faith that will gain us our salvation. So, if we give something to charity feeling that this act of kindness on our part will get us into heaven, then we are missing the point.

But does that mean that we should not give to charity? Should we not share with others what God has blessed us with? Too often, we engage in charity without engaging in community. If we are to be servants of the Lord, then we are to be a part of the community in which we live. If we are to bring into focus that which is in our hearts, then we must go out into the community.

It has been said that John Wesley opposed the rich and the powerful. I know that he wasn’t happy about the power structure of the church that seemed more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Gospel but I am not sure that he necessarily opposed the rich. I do know that while he encouraged everyone to give all that they could, he also encouraged everyone to save all that they could and, more to the point, earn all they could. He just wanted everyone to make sure that what they earned they earned fairly and not at the expense of others.

John Wesley wanted to make sure that everyone understood that poverty was not a condition of sin. It is unfortunate that this lesson has still not been learned. Too many people today still feel that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and poverty a sin of God’s damnation. For such, charity is a non-engaging task, designed to sooth their own consciousness. But should we not consider that, as I think Wesley did, put our faith into action.

Some have said that Lent is about giving up something for forty days; I like what Gordon Bienvenue at Van Cortlandtville Community Church wrote in the church newsletter. We shouldn’t give something up, we should add something one. We should begin to be a community, offering ourselves beyond the walls of our own existence. We can better express our faith when we give of ourselves in service to others.

It is not often that I use the Psalter reading in my sermons but this is an exception. I was contemplating a move away from the hills of Kentucky and as I was coming back and driving along the plains of central Kentucky, I could see the Appalachian Mountains in front of me. Literally, I could lift up my eyes and see from where my help would come. The decision to stay in Kentucky then came because I saw those hills and knew that I had been called to that part of the country. Shortly after that came an opportunity to share and express my faith.

The same is true for those of us gathered here today. We have been given a chance to express our faith; to say to others that theirs is not a life of desolation and devoid of hope and joy. By our act of giving, we share with others in our lives and in our journey.

The season of Lent is a journey. It is a journey that we take as reluctant observers, watching Jesus enter Jerusalem and then climb Cavalry. As we watch Jesus complete His journey, we see our journey began. But too often is it a journey not expressed to others. Like Abram, it is a journey of faith. It is a journey that should end at the cross. Today, you are asked how you will get there? How will you express your faith so that others know where your heart lies?


“A New Way of Thinking”


This is the message that I gave on the 2nd Sunday of Lent (28 February 1999) at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.

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Can you remember what it was like when you learned something new? Now, I am not talking about when you did something like passing your driver’s test but rather when you mastered a new idea. Perhaps it was in math class when the teacher was trying to teach you how to multiply fractions? Or it could have been when you were trying to cook something from scratch and you finally got the ingredients just right. When this happened, there was a sense of exhilaration that you finally learned something.

When we try to learn something new, often times we encounter difficulties because we try to fit this new learning into what we already know. As long as we do this, as long as we try to learn something new based on our old ways, we have a hard time learning new things. Often times we can get real frustrated about learning. That’s why when we do finally learn the new point, there is a feeling of exhilaration. We have overcome the barriers that we were faced with and things become easier. Then when we look at that problem again, it seems so simple.

The old way of thinking was what Paul was writing about in his letter to the Romans. What Paul was talking about was two different ways of living. In the old way, admittance to heaven was granted through your adherence to the law, by the manner of your works. But God’s Grace is a gift, given to us because, as it was written in John 3: 16,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

And if God’s grace is a gift to us, how then can anything we do get us into heaven? This is an interesting question; it is a question that can cause us long sleepless nights. What can we do to get into heaven?

Nicodemus was faced with such a dilemma. He came to Jesus seeking to find out how it was that Jesus could be doing what He was doing. As Jesus told him, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

To my mind, this is one of the most important statements in the whole New Testament. Unless we are born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. This statement was very hard for Nicodemus to understand because he was listening to it with his old way of thinking. As Nicodemus replied, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Nicodemus still thought that the way to heaven was through strict adherence to the law. Yet the law was often times contradictory and you could find yourself easily violating one point of the law while upholding another one. That is true even today. In our secular society, we seek to meet the requirements for success that are imposed on us by our culture and our society, often times to find that when we reach success, we find our lives lacking something or that the definition of success has changed.

As Jesus told Nicodemus, “ we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” This means that as long as we continue to believe in terms of the law, in believing that what you do is our key to heaven, then there was no way that we can ever understand the message Jesus was telling.

The period of Lent is a period of preparation. It is a journey that begins when we accept Christ into our lives. But we must first change our way of thinking. We must go beyond the old way of thinking, of trying to live within the boundaries of society and its laws. It is a journey based on faith and understanding what Christ expects from us. Faith is something that we cannot learn. God spoke to Abraham

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram left, as the Lord has told him;

And without hesitation, Abraham left for the Promised Land. And each time that Jesus called one of his disciples to follow him, they did so without hesitation.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5: 10b – 11)

Later, Jesus called the last two disciples, Phillip and Nathanael, Nathanael first expressed disbelief about Jesus. He said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” because it was a popular belief that no one from that town was any good. Yet Jesus knew who Nathanael was,

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 47 – 51)

The promise that God made to Abraham, the promise that Jesus made to his disciples, came only through the faith that they, Abraham and the disciples, put in God and Jesus. As Paul wrote, “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be grace”

Jesus challenged Nicodemus to change his way of thinking, to go beyond simply living the law and to have faith that God did love him. It was not necessary to return to his mother’s womb because as Nicodemus knew, that was physically impossible. But Nicodemus could let the Spirit of the Lord come into his live and he could then be born again.

The invitation that Christ gave to Nicodemus is also given to us. It is an invitation to see God as a gracious and womb-like, offering the sanctuary of shelter that we often need. This is in contrast to a view of God through the law where He would be the source and enforcer of requirements, boundaries and divisions. Christ’s invitation to be born again, to accept the presence of the Holy Spirit, is an invitation to take a different path for the rest of our live.

The path that He gives us is a much more difficult one, but only if we view it with our old way of thinking. If we take this new path, we find a life that is more and more centered in God and one in which we have a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God.

Just like Nicodemus had a hard time accepting the invitation, so too is it hard for us. After all, our old way of thinking does not confirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; the only reality that we can be certain is the visible world of our ordinary experience. And in this view, the only means of obtaining satisfaction is through the material world. We live our lives, measuring our self-worth and level of satisfaction based on how well we measure up to what the material world defines as success. Not only is this burdensome and often times unreachable, but when we do reach success, we finds the results, the rewards unsatisfying.

Jesus’ invitation, to Nicodemus to be born again, for the disciples to follow him, challenges and changes our way of thinking. It shows us that the Holy Spirit is real and that God is real. Consider what happened to Job. At the end of the Book of Job, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaimed, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee.” (Job 42: 5)

When we view the world with our old way of thinking, we cannot envision a God who would give up his only son; we cannot envision Christ dying on the cross for our sins. In our old way of thinking, the law traps us, forcing us to seek things and rewards that are extremely fleeting.

The gospel of Jesus – the good news of Jesus – is that there is a way of being that moves beyond both secular and religious conventional wisdom. The path of transformation that Jesus spoke about leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether it is to the daily culture we live in or to God) to a life of a relationship with God. Though the path that Jesus puts before us may look narrow, rough and rocky, it leads us away from a life of anxiety and towards one of peace and trust; from a life centered in culture to a life centered in God.

Jesus challenged his disciples to follow him, to go from being just fishermen to becoming fishers of men. Jesus challenged Nicodemus to be born again, to be born of the Spirit. The disciples followed through faith and came to understand Jesus’ message when the Holy Spirit came to them. Nicodemus went away, probably more confused than he was when first came to Jesus that night so long ago. How will you accept Jesus’ challenge and invitation? Will you hold to the old way of thinking and not understand? Or will you accept the Holy Spirit and accept Christ as your Savior? It is a new way of thinking. But then again the life that you lead as a result is a new life, one in Christ.


A Vision of Our Future


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18; Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1; and Luke 13: 31 – 35.

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I started this piece last Wednesday, before the snow fell (see the “The Great 2010 Snowstorm”) and the earthquakes rocked Chile and Japan. For some, such occurrences, along with the earthquake in Haiti, would be sure signs that the “End Times” were now. But this is not an “End Times” piece. As those who have read my posts well know, I have never accepted that idea or that scenario.

But it is a vision piece and it goes to what John the Seer actually saw in his vision so many years ago on the island of Patmos. It is not a vision of death and destruction that many say is the essence of the Seer’s revelation but a vision of hope that there can be a better tomorrow, that there is a promise for us all. It is a vision that comes from looking around at this world and saying, as Robert Kennedy did so many times during his Presidential campaign of 1968, “some see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask why not.”

Why, for example, do we spend billions on war and violence but only millions on feeding people and caring for people? Why do we not work to stop violence in this world, both overseas and at home, by building better schools and making sure that everyone has something to eat and has the proper healthcare? Why must we continue to accept the notion that violence is always the answer to violence?

Why is it that we speak as if we were Christian but yet our lives, our words, our deeds say otherwise? Are we so afraid of what might happen if everyone were truly equal that we will do anything to maintain the status quo?

The other day, a friend of mine asked why I was a liberal. I suppose that I could have given some sort of snappy answer like I do when I am asked about the title of my blog (where is your heart, anyway?). But I put my choice in terms of how I grew up and what I saw across the country while I was growing up.

Now, it should be pointed out that my parents were and are conservative but my decision to be a liberal is not a product of some sort of youthful rebellion. The one thing that my parents gave me, even in junior high and high school, was a certain degree of independence (with a clear understanding that I accepted the consequences of my actions). And because I had that independence, I perhaps saw things differently from my classmates in junior high and high school.

I may not have asked the question when I was in the 7th grade at Bellingrath Junior High School in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1962 but I did begin to ask later why it was that I had to buy my textbooks that year from a book store instead of having my teachers give them to me as had been the case the first six years of school or the rest of my junior high and high school studies. And while I didn’t have to buy my books when I was a junior and senior in high school (1966 – 68) in Memphis, Tennessee, why did the high school band only get $50.00 a year for instruments, music, equipment, and uniforms. I didn’t have to pay for my uniform when I marched in the William C. Hinckley High School Band and it cost a lot more than the uniform I wore marching for Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, Tennessee.

If you understand the times and the places, then you have the answer to my questions. And you have to ask how is it that, we who profess to live in a nation founded on the concept of equality and liberty, would enact laws that take away those very concepts? How is it that we, as a society and individually, feel threatened by the concept that everyone should have health care and earn not a minimum wage but a living wage? How is that we, as a society and individually, feel threaten by the notion that we are the same in God’s eyes when we believe that there are differences because of sexuality, race, economic status, or country of origin? Why is it that we feel that today is as good as it will ever be and that yesterday was better and tomorrow is to be feared? Could it be that we are not prepared to ask the questions or hear the answers?

And while I was asking questions about why the color of one’s skin or the economic status of one’s family are barriers to progress in this country and this world, I also began ask questions about my faith and what part my faith can have in changing the vision of the future. My affirmation as a Christian and as a Methodist challenges me to put my faith in action, to do more than just say the “right words” on Sunday and leave my faith in the sanctuary when I leave at the end of the service. And yet, even today, when it is so clear what the meaning of Christianity is, there are those who do not even what their vision of Christianity to be questioned. For they are ill-prepared to answer such questions; they are ill-prepared to deal with a vision that is radically different from what they see today. And their only answer is to deny others the right to question; to accept as truth their words and their thoughts.

But when you read the Gospel and you hear what Jesus did, He challenged the people to question the vision of the future as it was presented to them. And he did more than challenge the people, He gave them a new vision.

Abram was offered a vision of the future, a vision that matched the stars in the sky. But for that vision to be fulfilled, it required that Abram moved from Ur to the Promised Land and that he accept the covenant with God. If Abram had not made that move, then our story could not have been told. Jesus knew what was literally around the corner but He also knew that if He didn’t make that journey, nothing would happen, His mission, His life would fail. And if His mission failed, then we would have never had the opportunity to have a vision of hope and promise.

This is not to say that this earth will not end as so many people proclaim that it will, in death and total destruction. But it will not be God’s wrath that will bring down this earth; it will be our own self-centeredness, our own arrogance, and our own ignorance.

There is an interesting difference in the earthquakes that struck Chile and Haiti last week. Understand that the Richter scale that is used to describe the strength of an earthquake is logarithmic; that means that a one-unit increase in measurement (say from 6 to 7) is a 10-fold increase in strength. A two-unit increase (from 6 to 8) is a 100-fold increase in strength.

So, the Chilean earthquake was far more powerful than the Haitian earthquake. But there was more damage and destruction in Haiti because the structures were not built to withstand any earthquake, let alone the one that actually struck. Because Chile has a history of being struck by very powerful earthquakes, the majority of structures are build with that in mind. The same can be said about the buildings in California; building that sustained the most damage in the last couple of earthquakes that struck the Golden State were probably not built to code.

We have written Haiti off as a poor country and we are not willing to put our time, energy, or money into this country, even though its geological history told us that an earthquake similar to the one that struck last month would actually occur. Our own arrogance and indifference to the people of Haiti is as much to blame for the death and destruction that struck that country as anything else. How we deal with what happens next, be it Haiti, Chile, or somewhere else, will speak volumes about our vision of the future.

Paul reminds us that those whose vision is only their world will find, in the end, only destruction. If I am who I say I am and I do nothing to end the hunger and the poverty and the oppression; if I do nothing to stop the violence and the oppression that is so much a part of this world, then I am a liar and a hypocrite. And I if use my faith and my religion for my own benefit and not for the benefit of others, then I can only expect what Jesus promised in Matthew 25 and Luke 16: 19 – 31.

Those whose vision is Christ will find the glory that was promised in the original Gospel message and throughout the words and letters of those who spread the word from the Galilee to the rest of the world. Those who left the Galilee had no idea what lie before them but they understood the message that had been given to them and what it could me to all the people. They began that journey on and with faith.

Ours is a journey done in faith, not necessarily in fact. It is done, not with a vision of today, but with a view far beyond tomorrow. It is a transforming journey where we cast aside that which we were and are in favor of the new life, the life proclaimed in Christ.

We have been given two visions of the future. One ends in death and destruction, not caused by God’s wrath but by our own indifference and unwillingness. The other vision offers hope and a promise for a new tomorrow; it can be reality if we are willing to accept the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We have the opportunity today to accept Christ as our Savior and begin that transformation. Each of us has the opportunity to see the vision of the future. The question will be what vision do we want to see?