“Safekeeping”


This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church bulletin for Sunday, February 25, 2018, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (Year B).


We read in Genesis that we are to be stewards of this world, to take care of it, not just for today but for tomorrow as well.  Despite what some may say, how we treat this planet speaks to how we see the future.

In the Arctic Ocean, north of Norway, is the Svalbard archipelago.  And on one of the islands in the archipelago is the Global Seed Vault.  It serves as a backup for the other seed vaults around the world. One of the reasons for this and the other vaults is to protect seeds from all parts of the world from destruction by either man-made or natural causes and maintain a diverse collection of seeds for future use.

What was it that Jesus told Peter, that Peter had his eye on the real world and not the spiritual world?

If our vision of the world is limited to the present, we are going to have a very hard time getting to the future.  Tying ourselves to the present keeps us from going with Jesus and while we may think that it is safer to stay where we are (figuratively and literally), we end up in more danger.

Because of his faith, Abraham was able to envision the future, to see tomorrow even when it may not have seemed possible.

In our faith, we have a way to keep our future safe.

~Tony Mitchell

At What Point?


These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, 8 March 2009.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 17: 1- 7 , 15 – 16, Romans 4: 13 – 25, and Mark 8: 31 – 38.

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Two questions have come up that lead me to see the Scriptures for this Sunday in perhaps a different light. First, as I watch my new grandchildren grow, I have to wonder at what point do we begin to develop a conscious and when do we begin to develop an explanation for what goes on in this world.

First, at what point do we begin thinking about God or some other superior being in our lives? Second, as I look at what is happening in this country right now and ask “at what point will we understand that what used to work probably doesn’t work anymore?” I think these questions are related simply because when we lock ourselves in a particular way of thinking, we find ourselves trapped by that thinking.

When Paul is writing to the Romans about the law, he is, I believe, speaking of that type of thinking. As Paul notes, if strict adherence to the law was the sole determinant in salvation, then there would have been no reason for Abraham to even think of the covenant that God made with him. But the law is, by nature, designed to restrict, not create. There have been attempts to create solutions through the law but, in the end, they often are more restrictive than creative.

If we are not willing to think beyond the limits of the law, if we are not willing to think, as it were, “outside the box”, we will never be able to find solutions to the problems that vex and perplex us. It is interesting to note that we are not always so willing to look beyond our normal boundaries for the solutions to our problems and we ridicule and criticize those who might offer solutions.

On October 13, 1920, in the “Topics of the Times”, the editorial board of The New York Times wrote,

…After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey [to the moon], its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the [proposed by Goddard solid rocket based on] explosion of the charges …. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

… That Professor Goddard with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know that relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to reach — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

… As it happens, Jules Verne, who also knew a thing or two in assorted sciences … deliberately seemed to make the same mistake that Professor Goddard seems to make. For the Frenchman, having get his travelers to or toward the moon into the desperate fix of riding a tiny satellite of the satellite, saved them from circling it forever by means of explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of Verne’s few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn’t writing a novel of adventure. (Editorial comments, The New York Times, 13 January 1920)

It should be noted that the Times did print a retraction of their comments on 17 July 1969, two days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon,

A Correction

On Jan. 13, 1920, “Topics of the Times,” and editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows: 

“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react – to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

It can be said that faith is the belief in what we cannot see and reason is the belief in what we can see. And it is necessary to have both if one is to have a complete and full life. I have written on this point several times in the past (see “Faith and Reason in the 21st Century”, “The Crisis between Faith and Reason”, and “Just a Thought”). In that last reference, I wrote

If you lead a life based solely on empiricism and have no faith, you will lead a life without vision. You may be successful in what you do but you will not know where you are going or if you are ever going to get there.

If you lead a life based solely on faith but ignore the world around you, you will have a vision of what you want to be and where you want to go but you will not have the means to fulfill your vision.

Life is both faith and reason – the day-to-day activities of life hand-in-hand with one’s vision of the future. 

But we seem to live lives that are either solely faith-based or reason-based and I don’t believe that we can extend our reach if we limit our lives that way.

I know there are those out there who absolutely, positively refuse to acknowledge the existence of some sort of superior being but they have to believe in something. I recall reading a while back that many of those who proclaim themselves to be atheists are really not such because, to truly be an atheist, you cannot believe in anything and that is a very difficult task. And if you have no belief in abstract things, how do you explain good and evil? How do you explain the violence and greed in this world without evoking some esoteric, abstract thought?

Now, if good and evil are inherent in each one of us and are genetic markers in our DNA, then we are treading into some very difficult areas of discussion; areas that I am not prepared to delve into right now. So, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that good and evil are abstract concepts determined in part by some nebulous form that we shall call the soul. Now, if we have a soul, then there must be something that formed that soul and which provides the basis for deciding what is good and evil. For me, that is God; others may argue for some other supreme being but every time that I look at their explanations, I cannot help but think that I am seeing in God in some other form.

Now, it is clear that Abram had some knowledge of God; otherwise he would not have responded to the call to move from his homeland to another land far away. And it must also be realized that this move was based on the vague promise that Abram, soon to be called Abraham, would become the father of many nations. If Abram was any type of pragmatist, he would have calmly pointed out that he was too old and Sarai, his wife, was way beyond child-bearing years. But it was his faith in God that allowed him to make the move, a move from the comfort of his life and family.

We find ourselves too often trapped within that comfort zone, unwilling to try new things, unwilling to venture into new areas, unwilling to cast off our old view of life and try to see life in new ways. Peter, upon hearing Jesus describe his coming death on the cross, tells Jesus that it will not happen. But Jesus is quick to point out how Peter is trapped in the framework of present thinking and not able to move beyond the boundaries of such thinking. What Christ offers us is a change to see the world in a different way; to see people in a different light.

There are some who dismiss one’s belief in Christ as the Savior as hopeless superstition but I have yet to seem them offer an alternative that works. The problem is that the Christianity that everyone criticizes today is not the Christianity that changed the world 2000 years ago and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we will move beyond the law and its restrictions and into the creativity that is mankind.

It is a change that must begin now. It is not something that we can put off nor is it something that we should ridicule and criticize. It has been said that when Army engineers obtained the V-2 rockets that Germany was using to blast away at England, they were surprised to find out that the technology that developed the rockets came from America. We had ignored the very creation of the technology that now so dominates our lives. We closed our minds to the future and did not open them up until weapons of mass destruction came raining down from above.

When will we begin looking to the future for the answers instead of relying on what happened in the past? When will we begin using the skills and talents that we have to build instead of destroying? This country and this globe are in the midst of the worst economic troubles since the 1930’s; the old ways don’t work and new ways are needed. We cannot find the solution in the past nor can we say that new ideas don’t work.

We need a new starting point, a new common reference. No longer should we spend our time worrying about ourselves and trying to insure that we have everything we need. Let us begin by thinking about the other person, the person who does not anything and try to figure out how we can make sure that they have everything they need as well. Let us not try to put names on this; let us find the solution. When Jesus came to the Galilee and began his mission, he offered promise and hope, not to those who were in power and whose only interest was in staying in power, but to those who were forgotten and cast aside, those who society would just as soon live without.

We have turned our society into a virtual mirror image of that society of two thousand years ago. We only care for the rich and powerful and we seek ways to become rich and powerful. Those who are rich and powerful only seek more riches and more power. It has become a contest to see who has the most and it is a contest that no one can win. Our society is awash with individuals whose sole purpose in life seems to be to make sure that anyone who disagrees with their perverted and selfish ideas is criticized and ridiculed. These fools are more interested in the days long past instead of the days to come.

At what point shall we say that enough is enough? At what point shall we be like Jesus and say to Peter, “get thee behind me, Satan! Your days are over” At what point shall we look to the future and begin to dream again, dream of ways of moving beyond the present.

To move beyond the present is a very scary thing to even think about, let alone take the first steps that would make it possible. But Abram heard the promise and he took the steps that would lead to this day. As we walk this journey, let us look to the point ahead, not the points behind.

Promises Made, Promises Kept


This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 16, 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 17: 1- 7 , 15 – 16, Romans 4: 13 – 25, and Mark 8: 31 – 38.

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Last week we heard of the covenant that God made with Noah and were reminded of the covenant that God made with Adam. This week, the Old Testament reading focuses on the covenant God made with Abraham. Our history is marked by the covenants that God has made with mankind. So perhaps we should understand what a covenant is.

God’s covenants with Noah and initially with Abraham were considered unconditional covenants. Such covenants were made to a loyal servant for faithful or exceptional service. They were normally perpetual and unconditional but the servant’s heirs benefited from the covenant only if they continued the loyalty and service.

Since Abraham had been a loyal and faithful servant, God promises to make him the father of many nations and that God would give them the land of Canaan. Now, the covenant that God made with Abraham in the reading for today was both an unconditional and a conditional one. On the one hand, it was unconditional because God said that he would do it. But it was also a conditional one because it depended on Abraham and Sarah holding to their faith. For the second covenant to be fulfilled Abraham and his descendants must remain faithful to God and obedient to his commands; one of which was that he, Abraham, move from his homeland to the Promised Land.

I think it is hard for us to understand what this second covenant involves, especially from our viewpoint. But, as Paul points out, Abraham’s rewards came through his faith, not through his obedience to the law. Paul also points out that simply obedience to the law, the means by which we live, is not the same as living by faith. And living only through the law will not insure or guarantee salvation by grace, which can only come by faith. It was Abraham’s faith and not obedience to the law that allowed him to believe that God would hold to his promise, his part of the covenant.

Peter also had problems with the differentiation between faith and the law. Though he clearly understood what Jesus was saying about his death, he could not or would not accept it; hence, his rebuke of Jesus. Though well intended, Peter’s thoughts were born of fear and concern and did not take into consideration God’s eternal purposes and plans. Satan was not a part of Peter at this time but was certainly suggesting his thoughts. If Peter had his way, then Jesus’ mission would not have been accomplished.

If we feel that the law is what will save us, then we are going to be sadly deceived later on. The gain we realize from following the law will be short and without reward. Only through our faith in Christ will our efforts be realized.

It is one of those interesting paradoxes that it is through our faith and our faith alone that we are saved. We have to believe in Christ for the gates of heaven to be opened for us. And if we do not believe, then salvation can never be ours.

But we fail to realize that the covenant that was made between God and Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (which include us, as Paul points out) require loyalty and faithfulness on our parts. And that is the part of the covenant put forth by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading that is the most difficult. For we are not always willing to carry the cross that Jesus carried; we are not always willing to lose our life so that we can gain. We have trouble seeing how gaining everything insures nothing; yet losing all will insure final victory.

We try to make our side of the covenant conditional, by detailing what it is that we will do. One of his earlier disciples came to Jesus and said that he would follow him after he had buried his father. Jesus told him, “Follow me now. Let those who are spiritually dead care for their own dead.” (Matthew 8: 21 – 22)  Another came but left when Jesus told him to give up everything he owned. It was something that he was not willing to do. But the nature of the covenant does not allow us to dictate the conditions of the covenant.

Jesus came to make a new covenant with us. It was a covenant of the present and not based on the past. It was one that would close the doors of the past and set a new order to life. Just as life changed for Abram, who became Abraham, Sarai, who became Sarah, and Saul, who would become Paul, so to does this new covenant changed our lives and our relationship with God.

In Isaiah 48: 6 – 7, God tells a stubborn people, “Now I am revealing new things to you — things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment . . . of these things you have heard nothing until now, so that you cannot say, ‘Oh yes, I knew all this.’ ” In Jeremiah 31: 31 – 33, God says, “I am making a new covenant with you — not like the covenant I made with your fathers. No — this one is with you.”

Jesus made a covenant in the present because he knew that is where the true power resides — in the perfect moment of the here and now. God is I AM, not I USED TO BE, or I’M GOING TO BE. We are now here with everything waiting for us right now. When Jesus constantly declared, “In the past it was written . . . BUT I SAY . . .”he was declaring his covenant with the present, and thus with a new future, built upon a new relationship with God.

God made a promise to Noah and then with Abraham. God has kept the promises He made. As each day brings us closer to Easter and the Resurrection we are asked to reflect on the promises that we have made, to be faithful to God, to be his servant and to work to make His presence known more clearly in this world. The season of Lent is meant to remind us that the promises God made through his covenants with us, He has kept. This is a time to remember and to think about how we have kept our part of the covenant.


Are You Able?


My thoughts for this, the 2nd Sunday in Lent.
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Lent is about preparation.So, as we progress into the Lenten Season, perhaps we should stop and consider just exactly what we are preparing for.  Are we preparing for Easter Sunday and the Resurrection?Or are we preparing for the day after Easter when we are charged with the responsibilities of continuing the ministry of Christ?

As part of that preparation, it is traditional to give something up for Lent.  But do we really give something up or do we just put it aside until Easter comes and go so we can begin doing or using whatever it is that we gave up?Are we willing to give up everything and follow Christ?Are we willing to take up the Cross and follow Christ, as He asked in today’s Gospel? (Mark 8: 31 – 38)

Many of those who flocked to hear Jesus’ message left when the reality of the message came through.How many of those first followers were truly willing to give up everything they had and pick up the cross to continue the message.In the passages that follow this reading it is suggested that many gave up and went home.So how can we prepare for Easter Sunday if we are not willing to prepare for the Monday after Easter?The meaning of Lent is found, I think, not in our preparation for Easter but rather in what we will do after Easter Sunday.

It is a message that the modern church should do well to heed.It seems to me that too many churches and far too many pastors focus on getting people into church without focusing on why we have a church in the first place.Too many churches offer various activities and services that compete with similar activities and services outside church in order to bring people into the church.But in doing this, the mission of the church and the real reason for having a church has been forgotten.

The difficulty is that the church, while in the community, cannot be part of the community.In the past, churches put up walls to keep the community from coming in.In the middle ages this was important because the community outside the walls of the church was dedicated to destruction and death; the church maintained the culture and history of civilization.But after the Middle Ages, those quaint times we have come to know as the Dark Ages, the church’s walls that protected the church from outside influences kept the church from updating and growing.  The church continued to protect the historical culture of civilization without realizing that the world outside its walls had changed.

That is clearly not the case in today’s society.If anything, we have allowed what’s outside the church to define what we do inside the church.Too many pastors have opted out for the softer message found in the seeker service; too many pastors have opted out for the prosperity gospel. The essence and heart of the Gospel message has been stripped away in search of a quick and easy message, one more attuned to the variances of today.

H. Richard Niebuhr once observed that the theology of liberal Protestantism was “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  It is interesting to read this comment because Niebuhr was referring to the liberal side of the faith but it is the same theology that many on the conservative side of the faith use in their preaching today.  It is the essence of what are called “seeker-friendly” services.It is the very message that Joel Osteen and other modern day pastors are preaching! If you go to the Lakewood Church website and search around for the words “God” and “Jesus”, you will not find them. They just aren’t there. But the words “Joel Osteen” and “Ministries” are everywhere. There’s no sin or judgment or even kingdom — much less a Christ on a Cross — suffering. (Adapted from “One of those flashes of insight” – Reverend Mommy’s Random Thoughts – for 10 March 2006).   It is almost as if they are ashamed to preach the words of Jesus (Mark 8: 38) .  (When I first posted this piece it was on another blog; when I moved to WordPress, the link was apparently lost.  This paragraph was quoted in http://www.extremetheology.com/2006/03/when_the_libera.html)

Instead of maintaining the way of the church, churches have quickly added trappings of the present culture, at the expense of the message.There is nothing wrong with using modern music or changing the order of the service or how or where we worship.After all, there were people who felt that the introduction of the organ and organ music was inappropriate for worship.But the message that is presented cannot be changed just because society has changed.The times are changing but the message must remain the same.

Any message that promises riches and rewards here on earth misses the point of the Gospel that Jesus preached.The message brought hope and comfort to those that needed it; if we do nothing to assist in bringing that hope and comfort then we have not been listening to the words of Jesus.No one who accepts the words of Christ in their mind or accepts the Holy Spirit in our heart can sit back and do nothing to help those in need or those who are sick or oppressed.Remember the rich young man who came to Christ seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.He went away sad because he was not willing to give up all of his material blessings to follow Christ.The promises of reward for following the Gospel are not found here on earth but in Heaven.Yet the message of many modern day churches is that one’s riches are a sign of a blessing from God.

When John Wesley began to look at the nature of his church, he found a church that favored the wealthy and the affluent.He found a church that equated poverty with sin and proclaimed that those who were poor were sinners while those who were rich were righteous.The message of the 18th century church was that God had blessed those who were rich and snubbed those who were poor.Society and the church offered no hope to the poor and the oppressed and proclaimed that it was their own misfortunes that lead them to lead lives of poverty and despair.

But the Gospel message was not meant to repress the poor and the downtrodden; it was meant to bring hope to those individuals.The Gospel message was not one that those who lead a righteous life would reap the rewards now but rather those who lead a righteous life and helped those less fortunate would see their rewards in heaven.

We tell people that they are blessed and that the rewards are theirs but that is not what God told Abram.He did acknowledge that Abram, who would become Abraham, would gain from his obedience to God but the gain would come in the form of the children Abraham would leave behind.Abraham’s ultimate reward would come, not on earth, but in Heaven. (Genesis 17: 1 – 7, 15 – 16) How can we promise anything different?

We need to remember that the Protestant Reformation began because of indulgences, the practice of selling “tickets” into heaven.It was this practice that Martin Luther rebelled against when he began what became the Lutheran church.It was a 16th century version of the prosperity gospel of today.

John Wesley saw a church that had fallen back into the trap of the law as the way.If they followed the law, as did the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, then they could consider them successful.With the prosperity gospel message of today, we are doing the same thing.But, as Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s reading (Romans 4: 13 – 25), if we hold to the faith and we follow are faith, we will see gain the rewards.True, we may not see the rewards here on earth but, again as Paul pointed out, Abraham would not see the promise that he would be “the father of many nations”.It was his faith that guided him and it will be or should be our faith that guides us.

Are we ready to give up everything we have so that we can follow Christ?During this period of Lent, as we prepare for the Resurrection and celebration of Easter Sunday, let us also prepare for the next day, the Monday after Easter.Let us prepare to continue the message of the Gospel after the joy of Easter morning is gone.Are we willing and able to follow Christ, even if it should mean our own death?

  1. Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?””Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered, “to the death we follow thee.”  Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.Thy guiding radiance above us shall be a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
  2. Are ye able to remember, when a thief lifts up his eyes, that his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise?
  3. Are ye able when the shadows close around you with the sod, to believe that spirit triumphs, to commend your soul to God?
  4. Are ye able? Still the Master whispers down eternity, and heroic spirits answer, now as then in Galilee.