Does Your Room Have an Exit?

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” for this coming Sunday, 26 January 2020 (3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A). Service starts at 10:15 am and you are always welcome.

At first, I couldn’t understand why the Old Testament reading for this Sunday began by focusing on the Birth of Jesus.  But the passage was also about a new light shining in the world.

The first to visit the Baby Jesus were the shepherds, the outcasts of society.  Throughout His ministry, Jesus reached out to the outcasts, the misfits, the “outsiders”.  His was a light in a darkened time.

Then came the Magi.  Strangers from a different country, they represented the light of the mind.  They sought to understand the light they saw in the sky.  Their  heritage was teaching and exploration.  The hallmark of Jesus’ ministry would be teaching and healing.

A few years later, when He was 12, Jesus would be in a dialogue with the Elders  in the Temple.  Think very carefully about this; in the society of that time, what 12-year-old boy would have even been allowed to be in the temple, let alone discuss the Scripture with the Elders?

Jesus’ ministry was a different ministry, one that saw the world differently.  And yet today, many individuals want to build walls  to keep out the strangers and keep new ideas from entering our minds.  But  they do not realize that building such walls creates a dark prison for them, a room with no exit.

We can build these rooms; they are quite easy to make.  But you cannot grow, you cannot, by any imagination, you cannot be free.

But if we tear down the walls and let the light in, we can grow, we can have a future, and we can be free.

~~Tony Mitchell

Now it is your turn!

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)

. . . it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder — Based on Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, author 0f The Orthodox Way  

When I was in college and on my own (as it were), I figured that I would be able to sleep late on Sunday mornings and skip out on church.  But then I discovered that I needed to be in church.  College brought up a lot of questions, some about chemistry, some about calculus, one or two about English and history.  But there were also a lot of questions about who I was and I found that the answers to those questions came when I was in church. 

I was lucky.  The pastors that I meet and worked with in college didn’t give me the answers to those questions.  They showed me the way to find the answers on my own. 

There were some pastors, of course, who will tell you what the answers to the questions are and that you are not to question those answers.  I truly believe that had these individuals been my guide, I would have, as so many are doing today, left the church and the faith.

The invitation was and is always to “come and see”.  John the Baptizer told Andrew, Andrew told Peter, they told others.  We don’t know how many were invited and we don’t know how many accepted the invitation except to say that enough did so that some two thousand years later, someone invited you. 

Isaiah notes that we are given a set of skills.  Today, in the midst of all the troubles in the world, when there are so many people telling us that there is only one way and it is their way and that only a select few will be allowed to take that path, we stand here, with our skills and our knowledge, able to help those with questions find the answers. 

Many years ago, the Disciples told others to come and see what they had found. that they have found the Messiah and you should come and see for yourself.  Today, two thousand years later, it is our turn to say, “we have found the Messiah; let us help you find Him for yourself.”

~~Tony Mitchell

“A New Way of Thinking”

I was at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan, NY, yesterday (location of the church).  The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany were Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.  Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.


Four things happened this past week that influenced this message. Now, it should be noted that I created the title for this message first, as is my custom. But these events helped guide the writing of this message.

Two of the four things that happened were merely remembrances of things that took place some fifty years ago. The interesting thing is that when we listen to those words some fifty years later, we marvel at how prophetic they were.

But we have to be careful when it comes to visions. For we often make the visions that we see what we want them to be and not what they are meant to be or should be.

And that is the case with the two other things that happened this past week. They speak of what transpired and offer of a vision of what may be to come. But then again, it maybe a vision that we would want to avoid and thus allows us to seek an alternative vision.

Fifty years ago, President John Kennedy stood on the steps of the Capital Building and offered what many saw as a vision for the future, a vision that matched the brightness of the sunlight on that day. It was a speech of hope and promise, of a new direction, of a new path. It was offered to all the people, not just a select few, it was spoken to friends and foes, old and young; it transcended national boundaries and traditional barriers. The words spoken that cold January day gave a new generation hope that the words and thoughts that have echoed throughout this land had meaning.

Earlier that week, President Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, gave his farewell address to the people. In his speech to the nation, President Eisenhower warned us of the danger of a military-industrial complex being created in this country. Much has been said about this and how his own life, both as a soldier and a politician, was deeply entwined in the very thing that he was warning us about.

Now, at the time that President Eisenhower spoke those words, I was living in San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed. As the son of an Air Force Officer and the grandson of an Army Officer, I was raised in that same environment. Now, growing up in that environment, I could have easily accepted the notion that the very thing that President Eisenhower was warning us about was normal and that there was nothing to worry about. (The text of President Eisenhower’s speech can be found at (

But my education encompassed five different states and I encountered many different things. And my parents allowed me the opportunity to develop my own thinking, to not be encumbered by society’s norms. But it should also be noted that they made it clear that I was responsible for what I did and if I did wrong, then I had to accept the consequences as well. My faith journey was part of that and perhaps I saw things differently. Still, I am proud of how I grew up and I would not change it for a moment.

But I was not trapped, if you will, by the environment in which I was raised. I was allowed to develop my own thinking and see beyond the present.

What President Eisenhower was warning us about was not just an entanglement of military and industrial interests but such an entanglement that would threaten to devour the resources of this nation. On at least one prior occasion, President Eisenhower lamented the fact that a single jet fighter cost more than most of the workers would built the plane would ever earn in a lifetime.

And in that same speech, he also cautioned against the incursion of Federal funds into academic research. But it would be research used to support weapons research and not necessarily peaceful uses. And we have to remember that the first major Federal legislation for education in the fifties, at a time when the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik and this country was still struggling to get a rocket off the launch pad, was entitled the National Defense Education Act. The funding to improve science and mathematics education came through this act, not because it would improve the education of our children but because it was seen as a part of the national security of this country.

In the words of that farewell address, President Eisenhower saw a need for education. It was a sentiment that would be echoed by President Kennedy a few days later and throughout the Kennedy administration. But the rhetoric of this nation’s politicians, including President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, was still the rhetoric of fear. And people who live in a world of fear can only see the power of the gun, not the power of the book.

Sadly, I believe the same is true today. Our rhetoric continues to border to be based on fear and lies. And our responses are based on hatred and violence, not reason. Instead of seeking the removal of violence from our lives, it is almost as if we are being fed of diet of violence and we have begun to enjoy it. Instead of the hope and promise that was so prominent in our lives fifty years ago, we now are faced with an ever deepening cynicism amongst the young and old alike.

Last week, at one of the three services I did, a father stood up and asked that we pray for his son, a recent graduate of a nationally known fundamentalist religious institution. It seems that his son told his father that he was renouncing Christianity because Christians were some of the most hypocritical people he knew. I received the impression that the father wanted his son to attend that university. So I suppose that this son had waited until after graduation to make this announcement out of fear that he would have been cut off from funds to get his education. Now, to be honest, I would have to agree with the son in his assessment of Christians but as I was a guest in that church, I was not in a position to say much. I have heard too many youth express the same thoughts as this young man and I know that these thoughts are based on the words of their elders and their parents, for I have heard the words of hatred and exclusion that far too many elders in the church speak.

But when I led the prayers that day, I not only prayed for the son but the father as well. And while I would hope that the son will return to the church, I also hope and pray that the father will begin to understand what caused his son to leave the church.

Our churches are dying and many blame society, saying that what is needed is a stricter world, one in which the Bible is the law. But such a world stifles creativity and independence; and it is also stifles faith. If you cannot think about your faith, if your faith is to remain unquestioned and unchallenged, it will die. We need to be able to think about our faith and find ways in which it can grow and develop.

Sadly, that may not be possible. A report was released last week that stated many of our college students are incapable of thinking creatively and independently (; they are unable to see the solution to a problem that is presented to them. And if they cannot solve the problems before them, how shall they solve problems that haven’t even developed yet?

A world that lacks creativity and independent thought is a dark world; it is a sad world; and it is a limited world. But that is not the world that we were promised with the birth of Christ. What was it that Isaiah said some three thousand years ago — a light has been given to the people, a path out of the darkness.

But if we are to receive that light, we must see life in a different way; we must find a new way of thinking. How many of us would put down whatever we were doing if Jesus were to come up to us and say, “Come and follow me.” The answer for many is too often the same answer that so many people gave when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee.

Some will say that they have to take care of their family; others will say that they don’t have the time or the money; others are too busy with whatever they are doing at the moment to think about doing something different. Others would ask what would they gain from this and weigh the outcome against the status and power they have today.

But Peter, Andrew, James, and John put down their nets and immediately followed Jesus. There is no record of what James and John told their father or what Peter said to his wife. But there had to be something about being told that they would become fishers of men that spoke to their hearts and souls. Perhaps it was the words of Jesus that their lives would change. In a world where what one did was almost certainly determined at birth, such words would bring hope.

And as each day passed and they heard the words and saw the deeds, they need that something special was happening. But it required that they find a new way to think, for the old ways no longer worked.

Being Christian means thinking for one’s self, not as other would have you to think. Being Christian means seeing the world differently, not as society would have you see things.

We have allowed others to dictate what we will say and think. We are told that the care and feeding of the military industrial complex is necessary for our security but people will need to go hungry or sick or homeless. And we are told this, not only by our politicians, but by many pastors and ministers as well.

The issue for the Corinthians when Paul wrote that portion of the letter we read today was baptism. It was dividing the church because people were seeing that one method was better than another. That is what people in the church have been doing for the better part of the church’s history – telling others that they way they see things is the only way to see things and not the way the Gospel was written.

We have pastors today who tell us that Jesus was wealthy and we can be too, but only if we send them an offering of, say, $100. We are told that if you are in poverty, hungry, or homeless, you have only yourself to blame. Poverty is the sign of a sinful life; that wealth and riches are signs of a righteous life and that poverty is the sign of a failed and sinful life. It wouldn’t be so bad if these were just the words of Pharisee speaking with Jesus or a 19th century pastor, which they have been. They were the thoughts that drove John Wesley to rebel against his church and find a better way to express the Gospel message.

The problem is that they are the words of too many Christians, clergy and laity, today, who refused to be in the same room with a homeless person or who would prefer that the church’s doors be closed to the hungry and cold.

In the world in which we live, we desperately want some good news; we want someway to make this a better world for all and not just some.

If we but listen we can hear the good news. Isaiah spoke a child being born, of the people receiving a great gift. The people would finally walk in light after having been in darkness for so long. He spoke of the oppressor being defeated but he spoke of a child doing it.

But this was a child without an army, only the truth of the Gospel message. The Good News is that Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, help the homeless find shelter and free the oppressed. The Good News is found in the light that was turned on when Jesus was born.

It would be very easy to see what is transpiring in the world today as hopeless and beyond redemption. But that is a vision trapped in the old way of thinking. Jesus offers each one us, just as he did the disciples, a new way of thought and thinking. He offers us the opportunity, if we would but just follow him.

I leave you today with this thought. You need not do anything; you do not have to change a thing. But then the world tomorrow will be the same as the world today. But if you should choose to follow Jesus, to accept his challenge to be a fisher of men and women and not perch and bass, if you choose to see the world around you as those early disciples who walked with Jesus did, then the world tomorrow will be different; it will be brighter and there will be hope and a promise for all.

“What Time Is It?”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (23 January 2005).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 –23.


There are times when I read Paul’s letters to the various churches that he established and I get a sense of frustration. I don’t know if it is because he is not there while the churches are struggling with the issues that all churches must sometimes go through or whether it is because the churches are struggling.

Anyone who has ever begun a project knows that it cannot be completed overnight. Yes, you get the groundwork in but it still takes a couple of years before it is fully operational and self-sustaining. The operation of the Billy Graham Crusades can tell you that. The planning for a visit, such as the one that is coming to New York in the next few months, is an example. The people associated with the Crusade don’t just rent an auditorium and then let people know. There are planning meetings with local individuals, groups and churches so that people know what is happening and what to do when it happens. The Billy Graham Crusades are an epitome of planning and organization in addition to being one a classic evangelical event.

So too were Paul’s visits. He probably didn’t come to Corinth uninvited. His successes elsewhere probably cause the Corinthians to send a note inviting him to come. And his stay in any of the towns where he established a new church was never short. So, the preparation and effort to insure the success of the church were there.

But then you have the letter to the Corinthians that we read last week, today, and will read next week as well. Here is the frustration of Paul. He had left Corinth to continue his ministry at Ephesus when he received two letters from Corinth.

One of the two letters was a set of questions about marriage and singleness and Christian liberty. The second portion of 1 Corinthians provided answers to these questions and offered additional instruction in the areas of worship, the solemnity of the Lord’s Supper and the place of spiritual gifts.

The second letter was a disturbing report from the house of Chloe (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1: 11) about divisions and immortality in the church. It is noted that the young Corinthian church had failed to protect itself from the culture of the city. Religious and sectarian events were mixed and the result was confusion. As we read today, the believers in the church were identifying themselves as followers of specific leaders (including Paul) rather than as followers of Christ.

There were four different factions in the church; each aligned with a prominent Christian leader. One group identified itself with Paul; this group may have been attracted to the church because of Paul’s emphasis on a ministry to the Gentiles. A second group identified itself with one of Paul’s fellow missionaries, Apollos. As noted in Acts 18: 24 – 28, he was an eloquent speaker and this allowed him to attract a following. A third group was identified with Peter. They were probably of Jewish background.

The final group associated itself directly with Jesus. Now, in the context of what Paul writes, we might consider this group the "godly" group but this was probably not the case. Paul commends none of the factions, pointing out that their professed allegiances were causing division and discord.

Paul’s response in the letter was to pose three rhetorical questions:

  1. Is Christ divided?
  2. Was Paul crucified for you?
  3. Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Each of these questions would be answered with a negative answer. In doing so, he hoped that the people of Corinth would seek the absurdity of their divisions. Paul pointed out that in the act of baptism, a person identifies himself or herself with Christ, period. Baptism does not align the believer with any human leader or with any faction of Christianity, but with the Lord Himself. The Corinthians, who prided themselves on their wisdom and understanding, had misconstrued the truth. They had begun to identify themselves with the ones who had performed the baptisms rather than with Jesus Himself.

The commentary (The Nelson Study Bible) that I use notes that we might be tempted to write off this problem, attributing it to "those silly, immature Corinthians," if it were not for the fact that the tendency to exalt dynamic leaders is still prevalent today. Witty, engaging, Christian speakers and vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders still have the power to mesmerize and motivate believers today. And there is nothing inherently wrong with such power. The danger comes when the speaker or leader, and not the message, becomes the focus of attention.

Christian speakers and leaders (and that includes all of us, not just a select one or two) are merely vessels through whom God’s Word is communicated. Exalting them for the message they proclaim is a misunderstanding of their purpose. We must guard ourselves against identifying too closely with human leaders or placing too much emphasis on them. Our loyalty and identification belong only to Jesus Christ and His message

If we take our focus away from the Gospel message, then we run into problems. And if we allow the problems that we run into, then we are apt to lose our focus. The one thing that I think dominates modern church thinking, at least from the standpoint of the person seeking a church home, is that focus on the Gospel message. If they do not find that focus in one church, they will go to another church until they find it. The problem for many churches is providing the true message of the Gospel.

It is the loss of focus that Isaiah speaks to in the passage that we read today. At the conclusion of chapter 8, Isaiah spoke of the coming darkness that would surround Israel. Though the term "darkness" has come to mean a moral and spiritual blight over the land, it also referred to the invasion of Israel by other nations. In this case, the darkness came from the armies of Assyria that would take away liberty and bring oppression. This invasion comes because the people have lost their focus. No longer are they focusing on God but rather on other gods and idols.

The first line of today’s reading completes the thought of the last verse of the previous chapter. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were to be the first to bear the brunt of the invading Assyrian armies. But against this gloom, this darkness Isaiah promises that a new light would come to illuminate the world. In a world of darkness and oppression, there would be a King to set the people free, to bring light into the darkness. Of course, in the light of history we know that Isaiah is speaking of Jesus.

We have to see those few days of Jesus’ ministry, those days when he calls the disciples to follow Him in the same light. We have to see that Jesus has a focus to His ministry that is communicated to the disciples from the very beginning.

That focus is evident in the response of the disciples. When called, they followed. But as Mark Ralls pointed out, not everyone followed. Are we to assume that when Jesus came to James and John and make the commandment to follow Him, he was only speaking to them? Matthew points out that the two "sons of thunder" were working with their father that day and we have to presume that the invitation to follow was given to him as well. But he chose not to follow.

The problem, perhaps, is one of focus. When Christ calls, He offers us abundant life. But with this offer comes a certain measure of risk. There cannot be change in the world unless we are willing to move beyond the safety of our known existence. For many, change is hard. We tend to think in terms of that which is familiar, that which is safe. But holding on to that which makes us feel safe makes it difficult for us to move forward. Our souls remained tethered to something other than the love of God. We hold ourselves back from what we were meant to become. We choose to stay where we are, safe and secure, even when the Son of God appears before us.

We cannot say what happen to James and John’s father Zebedee. We know that despite their intial enthusiasm Peter, James, and John were far from perfect followers. When the chips were down, Peter denied Christ. James and John fought over who would sit where by the throne of God instead of concentrating on what Jesus was trying to teach them.

There are going to be times when Jesus calls us. Sometimes we are up to task; sometimes we are not. When He does calls us, he beckons us beyond the point of familiarity, asking us to risk us doing something we don’t know how to do, to become someone we’re not yet sure we know how to be. It is a risk to do this but then again Christ is taking that same risk when he calls us. (Adapted from "What about Zebedee?" by Mark Ralls, from "Living by the Word" in Christian Century, January 11, 2005)

The title of today’s sermon is "What Time Is It?" And that is exactly what we have to ask ourselves. It is noted that in the final lines of the Gospel message for today, Matthew said that Jesus took the disciples and went through Galilee preaching the good news, the Gospel message.

For unbelievers, Jesus had but one word: "Repent!" It’s a tremendous word and one worth examining. We think of it mostly in terms of repenting our sins but the Greek word from which it is translated means "to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins." So when Jesus called on people to repent, He really demanded that they change their way of thinking, abandon their false concepts, forsake their wrong methods, and enter upon a new way of life.

This must have come as a great shock to many people who heard him preach. The Pharisees, for example, who felt that because of their "good behavior" and "trust in the Lord’ assured them of divine favor must have really been disturbed. They felt they were already saved and just about the best people God had on earth. Jesus also felt that the wealthy, aristocratic, unscrupulous Sadducees needed to change their way of living. He called on the reliqious Zealots to change their attitudes.

Now, no one has a right to call on others to change their ways unless he or she has a more excellent way to offer. Forsaking the wrong way is only half of repentance; accepting the right way is the other half. So the call for repentance is accompanied by the announcement that kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way, for people to live. (Adapted from "The Sermon on the Mount" by Clarence Jordan)

So what time is it? It is time to repent, to change our way of thinking, to change our attitudes, to change how we view others and ourselves. Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio and host of the website writes:

I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that." So Atkinson responds: "Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swingin’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration — plays, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative, but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored, and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos.

That’s what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search:

  • You won’t find that church.
  • Surely, I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
  • Let’s talk about my first point again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. (Printed in the February issue of Context (originally from Christian Century, 11/16/2004)

The people looking for a church must change their way of thinking. But, by the same token, the churches these people are finding must make sure that they are focusing on the Gospel message. Too many churches today try to offer something for everyone but not offering the Gospel.

And, as Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

When you read Dennis’ comments and you think of what you know is happening, you have to wonder if there is any hope. There are those who say that all that has transpired in the past few weeks, the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the floods, are signs of the coming apolycapse. But, if God really wanted to wipe this destroy this planet, we would certainly welcome earthquakes and floods. Perhaps we, once again, being given a sign that there is time to do what is right.

Jesus brings forth a message of hope and peace. But he begins that message with a call for repentance, a call to change one’s thinking, one’s attitude, and one’s behavior. What time is it, you ask? It is time to repent.

“The Call We Have To Answer”

This is the message that I gave at the Neon United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (24 January 1999).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 –23.


It has been said that we are in the third great industrial revolution, one involving computers and communication. It seems like everyone today has e-mail and voice mail and a cell phone as well as a regular phone. Communications in the coming years will take place, as it already does, over the computer. It would seem that if you were not in the know where it comes to the new means of communication, you would be left out in the cold.

But these new methods of communication also come with problems. First of all, note everyone has access to such tools. When I was in Austin two weeks ago, one person kept reminding the conference organizers that the party line was still the basic means of communication in his region of southwest Missouri. So that meant that all discussion about the new Internet could not take place until up-to-date means of communication were put into place.

Second, a lot of people don’t know how to use these new communication tools. My brother often points out that one purpose of e-mail is to cut down on the use of paper in the office; yet, when most people get a e-mail the first thing they do is print it out. Certainly not the goal of the paperless office.

Another time, I was asked to submit an abstract on the use of e-mail in the classroom for an upcoming conference. So I wrote it up and sent it to the organizer by e-mail. After the conference was over, the organizer asked me why I had not submitted the abstract. She never read her e-mail.

All this suggests that as we move into the coming century, be it next year or the year 2001, and our society becomes more and more technologically complex, it is going to become more and more important that we know how to communicate. For as the means to communicate become easier, the harder it will become to make our ideas clearly.

To a certain extent, that is what Paul is telling the people of Corinth. In the Epistle reading for today, the people of Corinth are arguing about who baptized them and whose follower’s they are.

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “ I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ”.

Lost in all this discussion was the meaning of Christ’s presence in their lives. Paul then reminded them that the issue was not baptism but rather the preaching of the Gospel, the good news of Christ.

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

The Gospel message that Paul was called to preach, the message of the good news brought to us by Christ came at a time when the people thought that God had stopped talking to them. But, as is often the case, it was not God who had stopped talking to the people, it was the people who had stopped talking to God.

We look around us each day and we see the horrors and injustice of the world; each day we hear of new horrors in Kosovo and we wonder how a man such as Saddam Hussein could still be in power. We look at our own country and we conclude that God has forgotten us. We see the world in darkness and conclude that God has forgotten us. But the prophet Isaiah told the people of Israel that a light would shine in the darkness.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan —

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.

For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

To bring light into the world of darkness, God chose to communicate with us in the most direct way possible, through his Son. By sending his Son to this world, God was giving us a hope for the future. But we, with our human nature, see this hope with a certain degree of fear.

We don’t know what the future holds. We see all the changes around us and we can only think or wonder if we will ever be able to handle them. How can we hold out hope for a better tomorrow when we don’t understand what is happening today. And there is the matter of God’s calling to us.

In this day and age, how can we follow Christ? When Jesus started his ministry, as we read in the Gospel this morning, he asked his disciples to follow him. As was written, they stopped what they were doing and followed him immediately. We say to Christ today, “How can we follow you today? We have so much that has to be done?”

Following Christ is the most difficult task that we have each day. Being in obedience with God takes all of our skills and our courage. We are not the first to grumble about following the path of righteousness. From the day the Israelites were lead out of Egypt, they grumbled about the path God lead them. And whenever the going got tough, the Israelites were ready to throw in the towel and go back into slavery. That is same today.

We know in our hearts that what God has to offer is the one true path of life. Yet our minds wonder if we can make that sacrifice. Are we ready, like Peter and Andrew, to leave our nets and become “fishers of men?” Could we do so immediately or would we hesitate?

Obedience is indispensable. Not a static code, however helpful it may be at times. But obedience to God, who is present with us in every situation and is speaking to us all the time. Every obedience, however small (if any obedience is small) quickens our sensitivity to him and our capacity to understand him and so makes more real our sense of his presence. (From The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day)

We live in a world that seems so dark but yet there is a light. That light is Jesus Christ our Savior. To those that followed him, he offered a vision of the future that was greater than anything that they had ever known. So too is it for us this morning. There is a light in the darkness; it is the presence of Christ in our lives. The challenges we face, the difficulties we must overcome become easier when He is the centerpiece of our life. Yet, we often don’t want to accept Christ, to turn over our lives to him fearing that the obedience that He demands will take away our freedom. But this freedom that we don’t want to give up is cast in the darkness of sin and is not really freedom but death. As Paul told the Corinthians,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Christ offers us the promise of eternal salvation if we would only accept His call. You can hear his call today, as clear as any phone call you might receive at home. It is truly the one call that we have to answer.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.  I am preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, Sunday. (I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.)  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 10: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.


This has been edited since it was posted on 26 January 2008.


The original title for this sermon was “The Beginning and The End” because of the nature of the Gospel reading for today. (Matthew 4: 12 – 23 ) The beginning part was easy because today’s Gospel reading was about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But I could not figure out where the ending was.

If you are like me, you have a few books that you read over and over again. You read them because you like the author or you like the plot or even the characters that the author has created. You know how each story ends but you keep reading them anyway, looking for something you might have missed or trying to understand a passage that didn’t seem clear.  We know our stories so well that we can pick up a story at any time and know where we are in the progress of the story.

But, where is the ending in the story for today? Where do we fit into this collection of readings from the Old Testament and New Testament? Or is it possible that we find ourselves in the middle of a story and the ending hasn’t been written yet?

We read from the beginning of the ninth chapter of Isaiah for today. (Isaiah 9: 1 – 4) But though it is the beginning of the ninth chapter, to understand it you have to read the end of the eighth chapter. The ending of chapter eight is very gloomy; it is the prophet speaking of the end, the end of the nation and the end of the people as they are taken away into captivity. But then the prophet begins chapter nine with a statement of hope. Amidst the tragedy of exile and captivity, Isaiah promises hope to the very people to whom he has just spoken doom and despair.

It is that same promise of hope that Matthew is writing about. The Babylonian exile may have been a long time past when Matthew wrote his Gospel. But the feeling of doom was still present. Instead of the Babylonian captivity, it was the Roman occupation of Israel. It was the capitulation of the political and spiritual leaders who cooperated with Rome to ensure the continuation of the enslavement of many and enrichment for a few. It was a system that produced rules and regulations over all aspects of life, both spiritual and secular, and offered no hope. If there was one thing that the people of Israel needed at this time, it was hope and there was none.

But in last week’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist essentially tells his disciples to follow Jesus because of who Jesus is. Andrew told his brother Simon that they had found the Messiah. Suddenly there is a sense of hope. Today the call to Andrew and Peter is renewed and the call is given to James and John. The ministry begins with the preaching of the Good News and the healing of the sick throughout Galilee.

We know where this story ends. We know what will happen to Jesus and the disciples that He called. As the little group travels throughout the hills of Galilee, many will hear the Word proclaimed and hope will be renewed. Countless individuals will be healed. But divisions will arise between those in the system and those who follow Jesus. The authorities will begin to find fault with everything Jesus says and does and will begin to plot his arrest and conviction. The authorities want this story to end with Jesus crucified and this little band of disciples scattered to the winds.

But the story doesn’t end the way the authorities would like it to end. Though Jesus dies on the Cross, He rises from the dead on Easter morning. Instead of scattering the disciples to the winds and destroying the movement, the disciples take the Gospel message with them to the four corners of them to the four corners of the world and the movement grows. 

But somewhere along the line, the Gospel message has disappeared from the church. Somewhere along the line, the church has forgotten what it is and what it is supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, the story changed and doom has returned.

It seems to me that we have lost the focus of what Christianity is about. I have been told that war is inevitable and that violence is an inherent part of life. I have been told that evil is so much a part of our life that there is nothing we can do but wait for Christ to return.

But if war is inevitable, then why bother with this story? If there is nothing we can do about evil, then why even study what Jesus did? If the end of the world is death and destruction, then why even suggest, let alone offer, the simplest glimmer of hope? If there is no hope, then Isaiah would have ended with Chapter 8 and there would have been no one to say that there would be a new light.

I have been told more times that I can count that all we are to do is make disciples of all the nations. I cannot accept that we are to ignore the feeding of the hungry, cloth the naked, or heal the sick. I cannot accept the idea that those without deserve what they get and those who have are blessed by God.

Most translations of Matthew 28: 19 have Jesus telling the disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But not every translation says disciples, and I am not sure that disciples are the proper word. In preparing his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Clarence Jordan went to the original Greek and came up with “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” (Matthew 28: 19 – 20 as translated by Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel. )

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. writes

Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our erience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of god written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus Himself. (From “Books and Culture” (, September/October 2007 – in Context, February 2008, Part A)

In affect, Stackhouse writes, we are to do what the disciples did. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the world of life.” (1 John 1: 1)

Yes, it is difficult to follow Jesus, especially when we know where this story is going to go. Kyungsig Samuel Lee, writing in Korean Family Devotions, writes

The ultimate challenge of Jesus’ ministry was to go to the city, the city of Jerusalem. This city, which was the center of education, religion, and politics, was also the place where corruption and crimes abounded. Yet, Jesus went there anyway. Following Jesus to the city was a risky business. Many would-be followers dropped out when they saw this ultimate danger. What will it require of us to move to the city? I ask this question whenever I find myself wanting to settle down in the comfort of material well-being. God may not ask us to physically move to the city, but God does require that we reach out to hurting people with the gospel, wherever they might be. (Kyungsig Samuel Lee (Korean Family Devotions) – from Verse and Voice, 25 January 2008 )

But it is not us, per se, who must continue this mission. It is who we are to become when we hear and heed Jesus’ call. Jesus began his ministry with a call to repent. Repent is a tremendous word and one worth examining. Repentance is more than simply saying you are sorry; it is the singular act of changing your life.

The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.

No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan )

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We have to ask ourselves what it means to call people to Christ. The church’s sole purpose is to show the world, through word, deed, action and thought that God’s will is the best alternative to a materialistic or secular world.

Still, there is a vision of hope and promise. Just as John Wesley began the Methodist Revival when it appeared that the words and actions of the church were counter to the goals and outcomes of the Gospel, so too can we embark on a new revival. If there was ever a time for a church to embark on a course of evangelism and outreach, it is now. As Jesus said, there is no time to wait; the hour of His coming is unknown and lost to those who wait.

And that is where the problem lies for us today. We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a “shirt of hurt feelings.” It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan ) Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide; we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work.

But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light, lit with the Glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into that fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. Our actions will determine how bright that light will shine but it is a light that, for better or for worse, we cannot escape.

Some may see a crisis in the church; others may see a crisis in the world and wonder why the church is not doing more. If we are called to evangelism — calling people to knowledge that Christ is Savior and Lord — we must understand what God is doing in our history and how He is calling us to join Christ in his action in the world. Evangelism, in other words, must point to the presence of Christ as Lord in the affairs of the world and to the call of Christ as Savior of each of us. In this way, we see Christ calling us to abandon our worldly ways — our petty tribalism, our limiting sectionalism, and our own personal selfishness — and accept his grace in such a way that we, as forgiven sinners, can work as servants of His kingdom within the kingdoms of this world.

There is the temptation to forget that the need to see Christ working within the variety of struggles in our time also carries with it the need to see Christ as the one calling us to repent, to die to our selfish ways, and be converted, rising again to a new life with Him, as we learn to be free to serve our neighbor. If we are not careful, we soon forget that the evangelistic task of the church is the framework by which we see our service to the world.

These are undoubtedly different words from what you usually hear; they are most certainly difficult words to hear. In today’s world, a call from God to go out into the world and show what God can truly do for the people is a frightening thought. But what can be more frightening than watching the light of the world slowly disappear into a sea of gloom and despair? We stand at the edge of a new journey. We do not know what lies at the end of that journey. But if we fear the journey that we are called today to make, then we fear the Cross. The message of the Cross is simple foolishness to those who cannot imagine anything beyond the present world. That is what Paul said to the Corinthians two thousand years ago. (1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18) But for those who believe, it is something more; it is the very power of God.

It is the one thing that will enable us to begin that journey that we are called today to begin. We are in the midst of a great and powerful story, a story which changed the world and will continue to change the world if we tell it and witness to it. We can, of course, do nothing. We may hold on to what we believe and trust in what we see and hear. But we will go nowhere and the darkness will continue to grow. Or we can go where we are called, trusting in the Lord and we will see the darkness disappear.

So where do we go from here?