“Continuity”


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC for tomorrow, 28 April 2019 (Year C).

When I began working on my doctorate, I had a question that I wanted to answer.  The research that I did showed that one group of chemical educators was not talking to the next group of chemical educators and there was a gap in the continuity of chemical education.  As a result, there is a gap in how we learn and teach chemistry.  It is, by the way, still a problem today.

Now, consider what might have happened to the Jesus movement if Thomas had not insisted on seeing the Risen Christ for himself?  What would have happened to the Jesus movement if Peter and the apostles had not preached the Gospel to the people, despite the opposition of the establishment?  What would have happened to the Methodist Church had John Wesley and his compatriots not taken the Gospel message to the people?

We stand here today because the generations before us laid the ground work for us to walk with Jesus.  It was a path laid down for them by those who came before them.  There are those who will only know that Christ is here today because of what we do.  Our words , thoughts, and actions continue the story that began in the locked room two thousand years ago.

~~Tony Mitchell

What Do I Do?


A Meditation for 6 April 2016, the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8 , and John 20: 19 – 31

I started this a few days ago but had to set aside because of some other things. So I didn’t get a chance to finish it this afternoon, which in itself was a good thing because I was able to get a new idea to help me close the piece.


 

I had written some notes about a new revival but felt that they echoed some of the stuff I have written earlier this year and in the past. But the revival that I am calling for is not the same revival so many public Christians would call for.

Let’s face it, many of those who call themselves Christian today are anything but Christian. Their actions, their thoughts, their words and their deeds are hardly representative of what Christ did. And fortunately, many people are beginning to realize that is the case. But many of that latter group are not joining churches or accepting the label as Christian, and in some sense, I don’t blame them.

Would you want to identify yourself with the same label as so many people whose words, thoughts, deeds, and actions work against the very idea of Christ?

A revival is needed to revive and restore what Christianity really means. And like Peter and the other disciples before the authorities, we who truly believe have to carry out the tasks we have been asked to do without worrying about what the religious and political authorities who have so co-opted the faith say is the right thing to do. How is that Jesus can say to Thomas that others will know the story if we do not tell it?

It may be that a revival is not exactly the thing we are looking for; rather, perhaps there is a need for a reformation, of a restating of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world.

One thing that I was reminded of this morning was what happened during the proceedings against Peter and the other disciples when the religious and political establishment argued against their preaching the Gospel message. If what they (Peter and the other disciples) said was not a true message from God, then the message they presented would literally run out of steam. On the other hand, if the message was from God, then those who would suppress the disciples were the ones that needed to be worried.

If our message is the true message then we have nothing really to worry about. And we know that those who propose a message that runs counter to the Gospel are only able to succeed when they limit what people hear or how people think, so how true can their message be?

So in the end, the new revival that I think must take place will occur when each one of us lives the life that shows Christ is alive in us, when we work to help the hungry get feed, when we help the sick get healthy, when we help to build homes for the homeless, and we seek justice for the oppressed. And when people ask why it is that we do this, we simply have to say it is because we are Christians who have decided to live the Gospel message to its fullest.

Our story is Christ’s story; our story is the story of the disciples and those who heard them, of those who have heard the story over the ages.

And each time a person hears or sees the story as it is meant to be heard or seen, the world changes just a little bit. But when you have a lot of these “little bits”, we have a whole lot of change.

Too often times we expect a major change to occur rather dramatically. But the reality is that the major change occurs very gradually. And it is quite easy to see that it will begin when we live the live as commanded by Christ, so that others will believe.

I do what I am asked, to live a life that allows others to see Christ. That is what I do and what we all need to do.

Must You See To Believe?


I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning. The Scriptures are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

This has been edited since it was first posted.  I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend.  I will also be at Sugar Loaf again on May 5th.

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I began working on this message back on March 13th, the day that just happens to be the anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781.

Now, to be sure, Herschel wasn’t the first person to observe this planet in its journey across the evening sky. In fact, its presence had been recorded as early as 1690 but it was considered more of a star than a planet because it moved slower and was far dimmer than the planets known at that time.

It speaks of our own natural skepticism that those who first saw Uranus as it traveled across the sky were unwilling to characterize it as a planet. Even Herschel thought, despite the lack of evidence to support his thought, that what he had discovered was a comet rather than a planet. But as others looked at what Herschel described and gathered their own data, it became apparent that what was being observed was, in fact, a planet and not some other stellar object.

Science is very much an observational experience and others must be able to replicate what has been observed. The validity of one’s observations is predicated on the ability of others to see, for the most part, the same results that you have reported.

We are reminded of this by the announced discovery of cold fusion in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fusion, in chemistry and physics, is the combination of atomic nuclei to form a new nuclide. The fusion of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms is the reaction that gives our sun and all the stars their source of energy. If we could develop reactors here on earth that could replicate what takes place on the sun, then we would have a relatively safe and relatively unlimited energy source. But such replication requires that we create on earth a mini-star with its accompanying high temperature and pressure. There are those who feel this is a possibility that will be accomplished within the next few years.

But what if we could some how force hydrogen atoms to fuse together and form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure? We would be saved the expense that comes with high temperatures and pressures and have an easily developed power source that ran on our tap water.

And this was what was announced in 1989 – the discovery of cold fusion, the combination of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure. Unfortunately, the discoverers of this process were more interested in gaining the fortune that would come with the discovery and they rushed their announcement. As others attempted to replicate their discovery, flaws in the process were discovered and ultimately the discovery was discounted.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the theory behind “cold” fusion; in fact, it was first proposed in the mid 1930s. But because others could not replicate what was first proposed in 1989, very few people are willing to pursue such research today.

The failure of others to replicate what was first reported is a natural extension of Thomas’ thoughts to his friends that night in the closed room some two thousand years ago, “if I don’t see it, how can I be sure that it happened?”

It is only natural that Thomas would ask for proof. It is in our nature to do so. Now, we also read in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus told Thomas that others would believe though they would not see the evidence that Thomas wished to see.

My question this morning is how those who did not see will come to believe. John gave part of the answer when he wrote that the stories were written down so that others will believe.

In Hebrews 11: 1 we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Clarence Jordan translated this in his Cotton Patch Gospels as “Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.

We are here today because something brought us here. Perhaps we have come because we have questions about our faith that could only be answered by things seen and unseen, in this time and place. But these are difficult times in which to question faith or even to begin asking questions about God, Christ, Christianity or religion in general.

And the answers that we often get don’t help our seeking.

We see a world of hatred and violence, death and destruction, and we want to know where God is in this world.

We see the church today, both in general and in denominational and local terms, as a dying church and if it is not dying it seems to be one that is no viable in today’s society. Somewhere along the line, the church that began as a movement and gathering has lost its direction, its ability to show others what it is that they first saw. The skeptics in today’s society see the church and they do not like what they see; they see a church that is closed and inflexible, unable to meet the needs of the world in which it lies.

And there are those who would say that the answer lies in a strict adherence to a set of rules and regulations that are to be accepted without question or hesitation. What we need today is a society grounded in some sort of Judeo-Christian law such as was first expressed in the Old Testament. And those who offer such solutions tell us that they and they alone understand what it is that God wants and that we are not to question our faith or their authority. To do so is to destroy one’s faith.

But it is the challenge that allows our faith to grow; it is the challenge that gives us the ability to help others come to know and understand. It was Jesus’ own challenge to the rigidity and inflexibility of the religious authorities that was the central focus of His mission. It was Jesus’ challenge to the power of the religious authorities to dictate to the people what they were supposed to believe that gave rise to our presence here today. And it was how Jesus taught the people and showed the people what was possible that gave them hope that tomorrow would be better.

But this is not possible in a church today that is more of a social club than a place to know and meet Jesus.

In Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”, Cassius tells his friend Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The cartoonist Walt Kelley had his cartoon hero Pogo expressed it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Most people, if you were to ask them, would probably say that Jesus Christ is very much the image described in Revelations, a man cloaked in the whitest of white robes and bathed in the brightest of bright lights.

But we are also reminded that Jesus Himself told us that

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I am afraid that many people have encountered Jesus sometime during the journey but they did not know it.

Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, described her encounter with Jesus as follows,

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.” (from “A Chance Encounter”; I first mentioned Laurie Beth Jones’ encounter with Jesus Christ in a message I gave at Tompkins Corners back in 2003 (“And When You Least Expect It”) but I didn’t really explain what happened to her; I would do that in “A New Vision” (which is also a companion piece to what I said last Thursday – “To Offer a New Vision” ) and “By the Side of the Road”.)

We are more apt, as Laurie Beth did, to meet Him in a casual encounter during the day; in fact, we are probably not even going to know that it was Him until later. The prayer that guides us when we are in “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” includes a statement that one of those who come to be fed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

And if they did not know they had encountered Jesus, it is highly unlikely that they can help others see Jesus. If our own lives mirror the society that rejected Jesus two thousand years ago, how will those who society has rejected today see Him today?

During this past week, I heard something that reminded me of a Yardbirds song from the early 1960s. For those who remember such things, this was the rock and roll band that Eric Clapton was first a member. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page also played for this group. The particular song that I was reminded of was a post-Clapton song, “You’re A Better Man Than I.”

You’re A Better Man Than I (B. Hugg / M. Hugg)

Can you judge a man,
By the way he wears his hair?
Can you read his mind,
By the clothes that he wears?
Can you see a bad man,
By the pattern on his tie?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Could you tell a wise man,
By the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important,
Than the stories that he tells?
And call a man a fool,
If for wealth he doesn’t strive?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Can you condemn a man,
If your faith he doesn’t hold?
Say the colour of his skin,
Is the colour of his soul?
Could you say that men,
For king and country all must die?

Well, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

What exactly was it that got Peter and the other disciples in trouble with the authorities two thousand years ago? Was it that the just preached that the authorities hanged Jesus from a tree? Or did they, the disciples, do the same things that Jesus did, the same things that John as well as Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote about – heal the sick, feed the hungry, found clothes for the poor, and give comfort to the oppressed?

Was it that they disciples continued what Jesus began? Were the things that got John Wesley in trouble with the authorities the same things that Peter and the disciples did, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give comfort to the oppressed and give those forgotten by society knowledge that they are part of society and not simply on the edge?

We are challenged today to see the world in the same way that Jesus saw the world; as those who have come before us have seen the world. But to see the world with these new eyes, we need to understand and believe that which cannot necessarily be seen, our faith in Jesus. It is very easy to do the things that others have done – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and bring comfort to the oppressed – but if we do it solely as a cognitive exercise, we have done little for ourselves.

We may feel good about what we have done but we really haven’t shown Jesus to others. If we have not experienced Jesus, then all of our works are done with our mind and not our heart.

I began this message by talking about the discovery of Uranus. Many had seen the planet before it was “discovered” but it was only when the proof was confirmed that everyone understood that they were seeing something new.

Must you see to believe? It is an interesting question because to believe, to have faith is to trust in the unseen. But you trust in the unseen, the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit, because others have and you have seen the change in their lives. Jesus told Thomas that others would believe even though they had not seen but Thomas went out into the world and told them what he had seen and that is why they believed.

Will others see Jesus in you and what you do every day because Jesus is in your heart and soul? Will what you do each day to help others be because you have encountered Jesus, not in some whiter than white robe, bathed in the brightest of bright lights but rather as someone walking along the street dressed in blue jeans or a business suit?

When we proclaim to the world that we have decided to follow Jesus, we proclaim that we have opened not only our mind but our heart and our soul. Is that what others see when they encounter you? There is an opportunity today to open your hearts to Jesus, to say to Him that you want to walk with Him, no matter where that walk takes you. You make that decision on faith and on faith alone. But others will see where you are going and they will see Jesus and they will come to you.

It may be that you have accepted Christ into your heart but have been looking for ways that in which you can show the world that you have encountered Jesus. Today is the day to open your heart to the power of the Holy Spirit to lead you to that solution.

But How Will They Know?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Easter, 11 April 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 – 31.

This is presented by Nathaniel Bartholomew and focuses on the growth of an individual church. Following this message was a brief stewardship presentation.

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Good morning! I bring you greetings and peace in the name of The God Who Is, The God Who Was, and The God Who Is To Come. I greet you as members of the kingdom, as those empowered to bring the Gospel message to the world. My name is Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the disciples.

On the evening of that First Easter two thousand years ago, I had gathered with my friends. That morning, Mary Magdalene and some of the other women had gone to the tomb of our Teacher, Friend, and Lord, Jesus, only to discover that it was empty. He had appeared to Mary and told her that He had risen. When she told us of her discovery, Peter and John had rushed to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty. So we gathered together, in part in fear, in part in amazement.. And as we gathered together in a locked room, still fearing that the authorities would come for us, Jesus appeared to us.

Thomas was not with us that evening and when we told him what had happened, he would not believe us. You call Thomas the doubter but he never doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, that He was the Christ.

Now, three years ago, when Philip had told me that they had found the Messiah and that He was Jesus of Nazareth, I had my own doubts. But, when Jesus told me how He had seen me studying under the fig tree, I knew that He was the Messiah, the one the Scriptures had promised.

But Thomas always wanted that little extra bit of proof, you know, that Jesus had really risen. And a few days later, as we gathered again, Jesus appeared all of us and Thomas was convinced that what we had said was true and that Jesus the Christ had truly defeated death and had risen from the grave.

And He told Thomas and each one of us that others would come to know what we knew, even though they never experienced the First Resurrection. But like so many of Jesus’ teachings, it left us with other questions.

“How will they know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ? How will they know that He lives? How will the people know that the message of hope and promise didn’t die on the Cross that first Good Friday?”

These were simple questions but many times the simplest questions are often the hardest ones to answer. And as He often did, Jesus left it for us to ponder the answer. It was probably the reason that many people left our movement early on; they wanted a king to lead them and release them from the burdens of life under Roman rule. They didn’t want a king who would require them to do work and who challenged them with parables and stories that pushed them to think. As today, they preferred to be told what to think.

We, the disciples and the early followers, were still overwhelmed by all of this but Jesus comforted us by saying that we would receive a gift, a gift that would help us as we began to tell others of what we saw and what we did during those three years of walking through the Galilee. And then, on the day that has become known as Pentecost, we received that gift, the Holy Spirit, and we began our mission to tell the world the Good News.

It seems incredible that we could even think of going somewhere beyond the boundaries of our home towns. We knew little of what lie on the other side of the Jordan River; we only knew that Rome was somewhere to the west across the Great Sea. It was a challenging task to take a road and not know where it led.

It was a challenge to leave our homes and our friends. It became an even greater challenge because we had no money or resources and we would take very little with us. Some of our friends did not doubt that Jesus Christ was the Savior; they just wondered how we would survive; who was going to pay for these journeys? Where would we stay? Where would we find food? What would we get for ourselves?

But we remembered what Jesus had told us when He sent us out on our first mission. Take only what you need and nothing more; you will receive just payment for your work. Do not go as a beggar or as one who calls attention to yourself nor burden others as if you were a parasite. You will find friends at the end of the day who will offer board and lodging. It will be offered as an expression of faith in the Heavenly Father who sent you. You will be rewarded for your work, not as an act of charity but rather as a reward for your labors. God Himself endured toil and labored for man’s sake (Isaiah 43: 24) and Jesus labored on the cross for our salvation, even unto death (Isaiah 53: 11); so too should those who work in the name of the Lord not be ashamed to receive a daily reward for their labor. If others cannot see this, then perhaps they have yet to discern the true nature of the mission of these messengers of Jesus. (Adapted from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

We were also told to look for those with open minds and open hearts, those who were worthy. If we were to find such worthy people, we were to offer them the peace of God. But if they were not worthy or if their minds and doors were closed, then we should shake the dust of the town off our feet and continue on our journey.

Oh yes, there would be opposition, individuals like the high priest who told Peter that he could not preach in Jerusalem. In some of the towns we visited we were told that if we were to stay and preach, it would have to be in accordance with what they felt was appropriate, not what we were taught and had come to believe.

But if we were to only preach that which others find acceptable, we would not be obeying God’s authority. And the truth of God cannot be silenced by man-made restrictions. If we focus on human authority and the desire to hear only that which is human in nature, then we cannot focus on the Holy Spirit. And if we cannot focus on the Holy Spirit, we cannot tell the story of what we saw and what we know and what we were taught.

And just as there were those who would seek to bar us from telling this story in our time, so too have others tried to bar those who heard the story as well. Even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was told that he would not be allowed to preach. But he preached anyway and the world changed because of his message.

On August 18, 1739, Wesley recorded the following dialogue between Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, and himself. This followed a discussion on the manner and style of what was transpiring with regards to the Methodist Revival then beginning in England.

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal; also noted in http://frterry.org/History/Chapter_15/Chap.15%20Handout_205.htm)

Fortunately, Thomas and I did not find many towns where the Holy Spirit was not present. There were numerous towns where people sought answers to questions that could not be answered through scholarly work or prayers to nameless gods. Many days, we would find towns where the Holy Spirit was present, looking for the opportunity to grow in the hearts and minds of the people. It was in those towns that we would stay to preach and to teach, heal when we were asked, and to build a new church that would continue the work after we had left.

The power of the Holy Spirit cannot be denied, simply because someone feels that it is not appropriate. That is what makes a church grow. It is sad when you find a church today where it feels that its needs are greater than the needs of God, it is a sign that the church is dying. And if it is not dying, then it is not in very good health.

And that is why I have to come to this place today, traveling over time. I have come to this place because this is a place where one can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit; it is a place where the Holy Spirit can grow. It is a place where the Holy Spirit seeks to empower people to live out their daily lives as an embodiment of the presence of Christ in their private lives. It is a place where the Good News of Jesus Christ is shared with one’s neighbors, one’s friends, and the people you meet on the street and the people you have yet to meet.

I began my journey wondering how people would come to know the story that I knew and that I lived and that I have told over the ages. It is still a question that resonates today. And today, in this town and in this place and at this time, we are going to explore the first of several steps that you can take so that you can help others know this story.

“And Now It Begins”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 18 April 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 – 31.

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There are certain things that I think you need to know about my approach to the ministry. First, I am not too crazy about the Book of Revelations. I supposed it is because I don’t particularly like the implications that some people give to it. More than one person has come forward claiming to know the secret code behind the writing. And, in at least one instance, people in Waco, Texas died because they believed in one of those men.

Now, we hear that a series of novels dealing with the last days of the earth are among the best sellers. But there is a conflict between the Jesus Christ portrayed in those novels and the Jesus Christ that I know. The Christ that I know comes into the Upper Room in today’s Gospel reading bringing peace and joy to His disciples. If Jesus Christ is the vengeful representative of God on earth, as this series of novels would have Him to be, then he cannot bring peace to his disciples who fear for their lives. And if he is the vengeful representative, then his call for mercy and repentance is all for naught.

No, I am not too crazy about the Book of Revelations. But John’s words are prophetic. For not only is Christ the end, He is also the beginning. And even if His death is the end then His resurrection is truly the beginning. And while others may see the Book of Revelation as the end, it should also be seen as a book of hope and promise. In the same way, there are other words that many will see as the end but can be words of hope and promise. For you have already received or you will soon receive a letter from Dennis Winkleblack.

This letter is a call for a Church Conference on May 23rd, following services that Sunday. It is not a meeting of gloom and doom, unless you want it to be. But it is a meeting that will go a long way to deciding what the future of this church will be. I would also add that whatever decisions are made about the future of the church will be made by those present at that meeting. If someone asks if they can submit an absentee ballot or have you vote for them, tell them that they must be present; those present define the quorum. Also, though this meeting will in many ways define the future, the future will not be decided until Annual Conference in 2005. There will probably be another meeting with the "new" District Superintendent. Whatever the future will be, it will begin with the meeting on the 23rd. But it cannot and should not be a meeting of fear. For if it is a meeting of fear, then it is the end.

That is why the disciples were hiding in the upper room. They feared that because they were Jesus’ disciples they would soon be arrested and executed. Because their hopes and dreams had been in Jesus while He was on earth, they could not see a future. And now that he was gone, executed by the authorities for having had the audacity to say out loud what many had perhaps long said internally, they feared for their own lives.

The fact of the matter was that, with the single exception of John, each disciple would be executed or killed in a violent and vicious manner. But their deaths would not come those first days after the Resurrection but rather after they had gone out into other lands, taking the message of the Gospel with them. Their accomplishments would not come because of their own innate abilities but rather because of their faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

And it would be that faith, that belief in things unseen, that would propel the Gospel message even further, long after the original group of disciples and followers died. As Thomas, forever known after that day in the Gospels as "Doubting Thomas", was told, many would believe in Christ not because of what they had seen but rather because of what they believed.

There are many models for helping churches grow or revive. But many of these models, and I know you have heard me say this before, focus on the church helping people be comfortable with the Gospel.

I do not believe that the Gospel message is meant to make one feel good but rather the Gospel message is meant to take Christ into this world. Peter stood before the crowd and reminded them that they were given the task of taking the Gospel into the world. (1)  That is the same task that we are faced with today. If Christ is not taken into the world, then the problems and troubles that plague the world cannot be fought. If Christ is not taken into the world, if He remains hidden in a room, safely locked away where only a few, select individuals can find Him, then His death and resurrection are meaningless.

The problem is that many people feel that the church owes them something; that their being a member is all they have to do. They want the church to do everything and be ready when they call; they are not comfortable with a Gospel message that calls upon them to be the messenger. They are quite happy with a church that does not venture outside the room; they are quite happy with the safety it provides. But a church that does not go outside its walls will soon die and though it has not happened yet, I fear that churches who use the model presently encouraged will soon begin to die.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Rose Sims. She was the pastor of a small church in Florida that had been given up for dead when she was assigned to it. Now, it happens that Rose got her doctorate from the University of Missouri and her doctoral advisor was one of my advisors when I was working on my Masters degree. She has been recognized as an expert in bringing back to life churches that have been written off. Brought in to preach the funeral of dying churches, she has found a way to bring such churches back to life.

Some of the thoughts that she has about such a mission focus on the nature of the preacher and what the preacher must do; points that I have tried to meet.

But I think that the two most important steps in reviving a dying church are to first have the people involved with the church do the work and, second, make sure that it was the Gospel that was the central point to the church.

Regarding the first point, there are certain things that only the pastor or the preacher can do but if the people are not willing to work towards the ultimate success of the church, nothing the preacher can do will stop its death.

Regarding the second point, if the Gospel is not present in the message of the church, then the church really has no soul or chance to live. It does not matter how the Gospel is presented, but without the Gospel and what the Gospel means, the church will die.

In asking Dennis to call the meeting on the 23rd I had to pray long and hard that I was doing the right thing. The financial report that Jerry gave us three weeks ago was only one of several reasons for taking this step. You already know that I was upset about the comments of some members who call this "their church" but yet have done nothing to activate their membership. In addition, there have been a number of comments made to me that suggest that people outside the church community do not see this place as a church. One person a few weeks ago even told me that they were not aware that the church was open anymore. I said that they weren’t very observant.

Upon hearing that Eddie Stevenson is speaking next week, a person called me and wanted to know if an Indian Pow-wow is being held. And would there be vendors? She did not seem too happy when I pointed out that Eddie would be presenting the message as part of the regular church service. And by the way, I would add that if you did not hear his message last year, you should make every effort to hear his message this year. Last year, when he spoke of the traditions of his ancestors, he gave one of the best talks on the Book of Revelation that I have ever heard. Make sure that you invite your friends, neighbors, and people you haven’t even spoken to yet to come next week.

A person whom I have never seen in church on Sunday parked in our parking lot the other Sunday so that he could walk up to the Deli to get the paper. I invited him to attend services that morning but he declined. He said that he supported the church by attending the Corn and Hamburger Roast. This person, along with some others whom I have been in contact with over the past two years, see the church in a social sense, not in a Gospel sense. Others have quit contributing to the church because we have stopped the culture events. Again, they see the church in a social sense, not in a Gospel sense. It is perfectly all right to have social events but without the Gospel they are not part of the church.

This is not to say that a church, any church, cannot have social events. Historically, it has been the church where the social events of the community took place. But when the social events of the church overshadow the events of the church, then it is time to refocus the vision of the church

John wrote the Book of Revelation for seven churches in Turkey. He was writing about what their individual futures were. In a world where Roman tyranny destroyed any opposition (and the church was certainly the opposition), churches which did not focus on the Gospel message and the faith it took were doomed to die. For some of the churches, the temptation must have been very great to be a part of the secular community around them, insuring that they would survive.

The same is true today. The church is part of the community but it cannot allow the community to dictate its survival. For to do so would be to forget its faith, but if faith is protected at all costs, then the church cannot be a part of the community. Faith must be presented to the community, not hidden within the walls of the church.

The disciples were hiding, fearful for their lives, wondering what would happen next. Then Jesus walks into the room. He says, "Peace be with you." He brings back to them a sense of order, a sense of what their lives were about. In showing the disciples and us His wounds He is showing us the marks of forgiveness. We are forgiven, peace is restored to our troubled soul and we are free.

The word forgiveness in Greek can be translated as "to free" or "to let go." The Gospel story becomes a story of freedom. To those whose sins were obvious and who had been cast out of the community because of their shame, Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven. Be restored." To others like the Pharisees, who put on a good show to hide their sins, Jesus said, "You must repent." It was to say that you must stop hiding your shame, bring it out so that it can be forgiven and so that you can be free.

After finding the disciples, forgiving them, and restoring peace to their souls, Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit and the ministry of grace. He said, "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Jesus entrusted to the disciples, and to us, His own ministry of forgiveness.

Each of us has our own ministry; together our own individual ministries define the ministry of the church. But a ministry that doesn’t start with forgiveness will not be a very good one. If you cannot forgive those who hurt you, then the only alternative is to retain those sins. To retain is to hold, and to hold onto hurt is to lock us into the identity of victim. You cannot simply forget the hurt, deny it, or store it up for later use. It will eat you up; it eventually will destroy you.

When the hurts are great, it gets hard to forgive. We begin to wonder if we can ever give up the hurt that is eating away at our soul. But then we are reminded that Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit before He called us to forgive. The work of the Holy Spirit binds us into the work of Jesus Christ.

We do not have to produce forgiveness; it is impossible for us to do so. But we are called to produce, to show what happened on the cross. We are called to open the locks, open the doors and walk out into the world as one who is unafraid. (Adapted from "Living the Word", Christian Century, April 6, 2004)

We start by first forgiving those who have hurt us. We can continue by reaching out to those who have been hurt and inviting them back in to this place of forgiveness and healing. Then it is possible to go out into the world.

I hope that in the coming weeks, you will take the opportunity to reach out to those in the community, both members and non-members, inviting them to be a part of this community. There are some, I am sure, who will wonder what is going to happen to "our" church. And you can tell them, ""Our" church will die unless you are a part of it".

Some who live far away may only be able to help with financial donations. That is fine, though perhaps it brings to question why they are not members where they live. But those who live close by should be encouraged to do more than simply make a financial donation. All that does is "buy" them something, much like the indulgences of Martin Luther’s time bought people a ticket into heaven. Those who live close by should be encouraged to come back and be a part of this church. You can point out to them that we have been warning them for almost two years now that their inaction has consequences. The consequences are not as dramatic as the death of the church but there are consequences.

So it begins. Like the disciples before us, we start the week after Easter hearing some bad news, fearing that whatever future might be before us is not a good one. But then we are reminded that Jesus did not die but was resurrected; we are reminded that Jesus came to us and gives us peace; we are reminded that we, like the disciples before us, have been given the Holy Spirit and empowered to take the Gospel into the world. So it does not end today, it begins.


Is This The Beginning or The End?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.
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And God said to John the Seer, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In this simple statement at the beginning of John’s Revelation, God reaffirms that He is the beginning and the end. And as we enter this season of Easter and prepare for Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, we must ask ourselves the very simple question, “Is this the beginning or the end?”

Is this time the beginning or renewal of the church? Will the joy and hope stated on Easter Sunday be carried forth into the world? Or will this be the end of the church, both as we know it and as it should be?

Now, the church that I speak of is on several levels. There is the local church, the denomination, and the church in general. It is possible that there are some local churches for which this season is a very painful reminder that they are dying.

Such churches are losing members and live in a part of the country where the population is moving away. This is the case with many rural areas of our country. The people are moving away because there is no future in small towns with limited resources and equally limited opportunities. Churches in this area are getting “older” and everyone involved with such churches know that, when the last member dies or moves away to be closer to the family that left the area many years before, the church will close and a long history of community involvement and the preaching of the Gospel will simply be a matter for local historians.

And the denomination will say that it is a waste of time to put a pastor into such a community because there is essentially no community to support the pastor. I think this is wrong; I think this is one area where denominations need to think of how the early church developed and adopt similar techniques. What is to say that you can pick one or two pastors and locate them in central parts of this rural areas? Then give each of these pastors a motor home and let them drive to the areas where the people are and preach the Gospel. In other words, bring back the circuit rider. Use the motor home as a base so that the pastor can stay in one area for an extended period of time (say Thursday of one week to Tuesday of the next week with Wednesday used as a travel day). This way, people have the pastoral care they need and people will know that they have not been forgotten.

There are also some local churches that are dying but are in areas of population growth. These are churches that have to look at who they are and what they are saying to the community around them. A dying church in an area of growth is one filled with internal sickness, often caused by personality clashes and disagreements between members. These are the churches that we need to focus on, for if we do not, then any efforts to build new churches are going to fail as well.

Denominations must put resources into those churches that are losing members while the area around them is growing. This is often contrary to normal practices; churches that are dying should just be left to die and the resources that could be used to save them better spent on more worthwhile projects. But the people are there where that church is and the church must be where the people are, it is that simple. The problem is typically compounded because denominations often send in beginning pastors, pastors without experience and then leave them to their own resources. If they survive, they are rewarded with a more stable church. But if they are not successful, then there is a strong possibility that they will leave the ministry, haunted by the failure to turn around a dying church.

I think that we need to reward pastors for the good work that they do in building a church. But I also think that we need to identify such pastors and have them help those churches that are dying. To do this is going to take some serious reconsideration as to how pastors are assigned and who pays their salaries. The smaller churches get the younger, inexperienced pastors because that is all they can afford. But it is the experience pastors that are desperately needed in such churches. Since these churches cannot pay the salaries these pastors will require, the various denominations must work out a different type of compensation plan whereby salaries are paid in part by the central organization and in part by the local church. If we continue sending young or inexperience pastors into churches with problems, we are likely to see more and more problems. The solution is there if we are willing to see it.

On the denominational level, we are faced with similar problems. My denomination, the United Methodist Church, is showing a continuing decline in church membership. And I fear that the solutions that are being considered will do more harm than good.

Thomas told his fellow disciples and friends that he would only believe in the Resurrection when he was able to see and touch Christ. And when he does see and touch Christ, he is chided for his lack of faith. As Jesus says, “others will come to believe without touching or seeing.”

How are the others to do that? It will be because of what we say, what we do, and how we act in this world. The mission of the church as described in Acts is one where people of faith told others what they had seen and done. The book that describes the early church is called the Acts of the Apostles because it is a description of what the Apostles did, not just what they said.

And when the world looks at the denominations of the church today, what is it that it sees? It sees a body of people squabbling over matters that are not in the Bible while ignoring the very core issues of the Bible. It sees preachers in expensive suits and with extravagant life styles preaching a false gospel. The world today sees a church, both at the denominational level and the general church level, as hypocritical, bigoted, and exclusive. It reads in the Bible of a man who walked among the people and turned no one away, who challenged religious and political authorities to do the right thing, and who gave His life so that others could live.

This very well can be the end of the church, at all levels, if we are not willing to change. But if we are willing to change; if we are willing to lead the life that was the life of the early church, then this time has the chance to be the beginning of the greatest revival mankind has known since that first gathering some two thousand years ago.

Jesus spoke of each of us when He told Thomas that others will come to believe even though they had not seen the risen Christ.
They will come to know and believe because we are here to tell them of the miracles that Jesus has done in our own lives.

This can be the end but it also has the great opportunity to be the beginning. It will be up to us.