Creating A Plan Of Action


A Meditation for 24 January 2016, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C). The meditation is based on Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthian 12: 12 – 31, and Luke 4: 14 – 21

I happen to be a chemist by training. And when I began teaching after graduating from college I found that chemical education was something that interested me. This, along with bio-inorganic chemistry and statistics, became the foundation for my doctoral studies and later research.

My liturgical skills and interests came later in life but were, would be, and are supported and enhanced by the liberal art foundations provided by my research in chemistry and chemical education.

One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about teaching, be it chemistry, mathematics, English, or any other subject, is that it takes more than just knowing the subject (see “Thanks a lot, Henry!” and “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”). You have to know how people think and learn and you have to have a plan.

And any plan you create has to take into consideration the skills and abilities of all those involved, not just a select few, and the resources that you have to work with. What will work in one setting is not necessarily guaranteed to work in another.

So when we look at the Old Testament reading for today, we should see two things.

First, teaching was involved. The people were coming back to Israel after years of exile in Babylon and they had pretty well forgotten the basis for their society, their country, and their lives.

Second, everyone, not just a select people, were taught. There is a specific reference to women being present as well as all those who were capable of understanding (which would be the youth of the community).

As I have written over the past few weeks, there is a crying need for a 21st century revival and it has to begin with teaching what it means to be a Christian today. This is necessary because so many churches today have changed the meaning of Christianity to meet their definitions (see “The Four Gospels of American Christianity”) rather than the ideas expressed throughout the Bible.

It is important to note that every one will be involved, not just a select few chosen by some establishment elite. And, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, each person will be called to utilize the skills they have as best as they can. Often times, we ask people to do things that for which they are not capable of doing or doing it at a level they cannot sustain. Some people are going to have to share in the tasks as well as understand that each person does what they can. Nor can we get upset because it would seem that some don’t do as much as others. The point is that we work together, using our skills and abilities to achieve the goals set forth by Christ that day when He stood up in His own synagogue and read the Scripture.

We are very much like the people who gathered that day to hear Nehemiah and the others. Our world is on the verge of destruction and we have been called to rebuild it; we have forgotten the nature of our faith and what that means in today’s world.

We are world of differences but that differences that when working together make the world a better place.

Each community of believers must and can create their own plan of action. And we must know what skills and abilities each member has, for what what community does may not be what another community does.

But the basis for action lies in the words of Christ first expressed in the synagogue two thousand years ago. We now are called to complete that plan.

“Parts of the Church”


I am at Sloatsburg United Methodist Church again this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany. Services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures (as somewhat noted in the message) are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21. I also gave part of this message on Saturday at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. I was also there last week; unfortunately I had a problem with my hard drive and the flash drive where I store my files. As a result, I lost the electronic copy of last week’s sermon (still got the hard copy though) and was unable to post it to the blog.

When I began thinking about this message, I was specifically looking at the Epistle reading for today (1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31) and Paul’s thoughts on the gifts and talents of the people in the Corinthian congregation. And because of something one of my cousins, Paul Schuëssler, a Lutheran minister, gave me several years ago about the structure of church membership (see “The Structure of Church Membership”), I thought that was the path this message was going to take.

But then some other things happened and I began to wonder if there wasn’t another path that my mind and thoughts should take.

One of those things that changed the direction was the Old Testament reading for today (Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10). As I read it and thought about it, it occurred to me that thinking about the part of the church inside the church walls might be a little limiting.

You see, the passage from Nehemiah is probably the first time that women and children are specifically mentioned as being part of the gathering. Most of the time, when you read about a gathering of people in either the Old or New Testament, any discussion of numbers is always in terms of the men present; women and children are assumed to be present but only as an after-thought.

When the writer of Matthew refers to the feeding of the multitudes, first the 5000 and then the 4000, he is referring to the men that are there. In actuality, there may have been close to 20,000 men, women, and children present each time.

Now, how can you think about the people inside the church as being the only one who are parts of the church? Those individuals may be, as my cousin Paul described, the visionaries, the resources, the learners and the activists that guide and direct the nature of the church but there are many, many more people who are a part of the church, especially if you move, and one has to move, beyond the walls of the church.

And that is what brings me to the other thoughts that changed what I was thinking before I began writing these words.

I had the chance the other day to view the documentary “Ripple of Hope.” It is about the night of April 4, 1968 and what transpired in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Senator Robert Kennedy had come to Indianapolis to participate in a campaign rally in his bid to obtain the Democratic Party nomination for President. But as word spread across the nation about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that day, violence and anger seemed to erupt almost simultaneously. Many individuals, both city officials and Kennedy campaign staffers, felt that the threat of danger was too great and that for his own security, Senator Kennedy should cancel the rally.

But Senator Kennedy chose to attend the rally, perhaps fully knowing the risks involved and perhaps equally aware that individuals would seek to use the rally as a provocation for hatred, anger, and violence. But he was also aware that many individuals were already gathering at the campaign rally sight and were probably unaware of what was transpiring in Memphis and across the nation.

After telling the crowd that had gathered what had occurred in Memphis that afternoon, Senator spoke from his heart and soul as much as from his mind that he understood how people felt at that moment and how their natural instincts were to strike out in vengeance and retribution. But he also said that violence could never replace justice and to seek a violent solution would vindicate those who opposed Dr. King’s work, not honor it.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. (from Wikipedia)

Senator Kennedy concluded by reiterating his belief that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites and encouraged the country to

“dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”

When he was finished, he asked the people gathered there to go home and pray for the people and the country. It is remarkable to note, that on a night marked by violence in every major city in this country, there were no riots or acts of destruction in Indianapolis, such were the power of the words that Robert Kennedy spoke that night.

At the end of the film is a scene at Senator Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Nation Cemetery. Carved in the granite wall memorial are words that he spoke in Cape Town, South Africa on June 6, 1966 for the University of Durbin’s “Affirmation Day” celebration.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (from http://rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/unicape.php)

Where are the ripples of hope in today’s society? It is a question that pertains very much to why we are here today (both at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen and at Sloatsburg United Methodist Church).

This is, as you well know, a United Methodist Church. I will not spend time on why it is a United Methodist Church but on why it is that we are those people called Methodists.

John Wesley never sought to create a new denomination; all he sought to do was reform the Church of England. He saw a church that failed to meet the spiritual needs of the people and a society that failed to meet the physical and social needs of the people as well. He saw a church community that built walls around the church in order to keep those outside the church from ever entering the church and he saw people who made sure that anyone from the outside would be very unwelcome should they ever find a way around the walls and barriers erected to keep them out.

He also had questions about his own salvation and what it would take for his soul to find peace. He saw the path to salvation as a strict obedience to the perceived laws of God.

In 1729, his brother Charles, along with a number of other students at Oxford University, found the Holy Club. They would gather on a regular basis and began to develop a systematic way of life that would enable them to answer the same set of questions that perplexed John Wesley; how does one truly achieve salvation? Because of this regular and systematic approach, other students derided them by calling them “Methodists.” This approach not only included regular prayer and worship but the beginnings of a prison ministry, a credit union to help the poor and indigent, a community health organization, and a Sunday School for the education of children. As a result, two things happened.

First, the early Methodist ministers, both in England and here in America, were barred from preaching in the pulpit of the Church of England. Wesley would go into the fields, the mines and the factories and preach because that was were the people were. He once said that it was easier to preach the Gospel there than in a church because the people in the fields would listen. And the people in the fields, factories, and mines were unable to come to the church, then perhaps the church should come to them.

The other thing that happened was something that actually did not happen. England in the 1700s was on the verge of a political and social revolution, the same revolutionary spirit that swept across America and created this country. Many historians will tell you that the only thing that prevented England from undergoing the same violent revolution that swept France a few years after the American Revolution was the efforts of those associated with the Methodist Revival and John Wesley.

Why did John Wesley seek to change the way his church worked? Why did John Wesley and those that formed the early Methodist groups and societies seek to reach out to others, others that the church ignored?

I think that the answer and our response today can be found in an earlier part of the speech that Robert Kennedy gave to the students at the University of Durbin. He said

We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because (of) the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.

What are the right things that we must do? It seems to me that John Wesley and the early Methodists understood that it was imperative to treat all people the same if for no other reason that what Robert Kennedy would say later, it is the right thing to do.

When Jesus stood before the people in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he took the scroll and read,

God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

Jesus would then begin his ministry, not there in the synagogue, but in the countryside, moving from town to town, healing people and offering words of hope. His call to the people was an open call, even to those who, because of some rule or regulation or perhaps because of where they were born, were barred from access to the Temple.

We know that there were many who did not like this ministry. Comfortable inside their own synagogues, they did not like to hear that Jesus and his followers would preach.

But those outside the walls of the church rejoiced in the message, for it was the first time anyone had ever paid attention to them because of who they were and not because those who came wanted to use them for their own selfish purposes. And the world changed.

The same was true when John Wesley and other early Methodists, fueled by the Holy Spirit, went into the fields, the factories, and the mines. This may have been the first time that the people there had ever heard the Gospel or known that other people truly cared about them. And the world changed.

It may seem, especially today, that one individual can do very little in the world. But Robert Kennedy spoke words of love and peace to people filled with anger and hatred and it changed the world.

Jesus preached the same message and told us to go out into the world, to preach the message of good news and announce the pardon of prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the burdened and battered free. If we do as John Wesley did, seek to follow Christ and open our hearts, our minds, and our souls as so many others have done before us, then the world will change.

If we let the Holy Spirit come to us, as it came to Saul on the road to Damascus when he became Paul or as it came to John Wesley that night that we call Aldersgate, then we can create that ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy spoke of that will begin the wave that sweeps down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

We can begin to do that when we make our part of the world part of the church.

Saturday Morning Worship @ Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)


During the 2012 Advent season, we began a worship service prior to breakfast. As the New Year begins, we are going to continue this worship. If you are interested in participating in the worship service, contact me at TonyMitchellPhD (at) optimum.net. I have included the lectionary readings for the Sundays in January so that you can think about this. Because of the time frame, we ask that you pick one of the lectionary readings and prepare your message on that reading. Looking forward to hearing the many voices of United Methodists during 2013 at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Oh, and you get breakfast

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 for soup, bread, and other “goodies”. Come and join us in friendship and fellowship at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

Worship from 8 to 8:30; Breakfast from 8:30 to 9:45

January 5th – Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 12th – Baptism of the Lord – Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22

January 19th – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany – Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11; John 2: 1 – 11

A New Understanding” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

January 26th – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; Luke 4: 14 – 21

Parts of the Church” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

First, Read the manual; then


I was at Hankins UMC this morning and will be there again next week.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just after the intersection of NY 94 and NY 97)  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010 were Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.

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The title for today’s sermon actually started out as something else but as sometimes happens, it changed in the process of the writing. Still, it is a highly appropriate title when you stop and consider what the Israelites did as described in the Old Testament reading for today.

The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon to their home in Israel. This exile took them away, not only from their ancestral home, but from an understanding of who they were as a people. That is why the book was read to them; so that they would understand who they were and what they were to do. This reading wasn’t just the traditional stories; it was also the minutiae of life, the rules and regulations that were part and parcel of their identity.

And it wasn’t read to a select group but to the whole population. It refers to the women, something rarely done in the Bible. It speaks of those who have understanding and I have taken that to mean the youth of the population, those who were in and had attended school being in attendance. To include the women and the youth in the story tells you something of the importance of this moment in time.

In hearing the words and reading the words, the people got a better understanding of who they were and what they were to do. The rebuilding of the Temple could only be accomplished if the Israelites understood who they truly were.

And this is the key for us today. In a country that loudly proclaims at every opportunity that it is a Christian nation, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it is quite surprising how many people have not read the Bible or, if they have read it, know what is in it.

We are a remarkably literate nation, but only in the sense that the majority of people can read. There is nothing wrong with that but true literacy is more than reading; it is also comprehending what has been read and then doing something with that newfound knowledge.

A couple of years ago I got a book about the speeches President John Kennedy made (Let Every Nation Know, Robert Dallek and Terry Golway). In it, the authors made a very telling statement. They pointed out that President Kennedy did not speak in the sound bites of today’s politicians but rather in literate paragraphs and with references to history that the listener was expected to know and understand. This is a sobering thought, especially when it is viewed in the context of today’s political discourse with sound bites filled with questionable and negative statements. But politicians can make such statements and their supporters quickly repeat them because we are willing to accept lies and misstatements as truth and are equally not willing to push the speakers to tell the truth.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that a nation could never expect to be free and ignorant at the same time; yet, we seem to revel in our ignorance and cannot see our freedom slipping away.

Time and time again, the people of this nation show their inability to remember what we learned in school. This inability to remember basic information and utilize what we know threatens the security of this nation and the continuation of civilization. And whether we wish to accept the idea or not, our lack of knowledge about the Bible and our inability to use that knowledge is part and parcel of this national threat.

This is not limited to one sector of our population. It is spread equally among the people, whether they do not attend church or disdain modern religion as a myth or an opiate of the mind or are among those who regularly attend church every Sunday.

Being a Christian today is hard enough; it is even harder because people do not know the basic tenets and history of their faith or what it is that they are supposed to do.

Consider the following little tidbits of information:

  1. Most people can not name all Ten Commandments; according to one Gallup poll, less than ½ of the born-again community can name five)
  2. Most people can name the four Beatles but cannot name one of the twelve apostles.
  3. Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only three out of five Christians can recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament.
  4. Only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34); only ½ of the Christians polled could identify the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  5. 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
  6. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and one that actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.

A 2004 Gallup survey (http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927) indicated that

  1. Nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.
  2. 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark.
  3. And ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament

Another survey (http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm) showed

  1. That less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior.
  2. When given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.

(There is a quiz at http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bl-quiz.html if you are interested.)

In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.

But, when it came to the section covering Christianity, there were some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they had never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith. – “Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?” – 29 June 2008

This lack of understanding of the Bible and its history impacts on our lives in so many ways. It is very difficult to explain Christ and the meaning He has for each one of us when what is said and done in the name of Christ is so contradictory. People may say that Christ is a myth because they hear about this man who walked the paths of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and preached about healing people and freeing the oppressed but they see those who proclaim to be His followers exclude people and work for oppression and exclusion. Why should they not believe?

They hear preachers with syrupy-sweet Southern accents tell them God wants them to be wealthy and have the good life and all you have to do is give their ministry a few dollars because God will return you ten-fold or thousand-fold what you have given to Him. Not only is this not what is in the Bible; it is complete reversal of what is in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that we are to be the servant, to do for others what has been done for us. It is hard to see how, in a world that begs for bread, that someone would assume that God exists solely to meet our desires. But that is exactly what has happened because we don’t know the Bible, we don’t know how we got to this point in time, and we have let too many others tell us what it is we are to know and to believe.

It would have been very easy for Nehemiah and Ezra to tell the people of Israel to simply rebuild the Temple when they returned to Jerusalem. But they wouldn’t have had a clue as to why they were doing it or what to do when it was finished.

That is where we are today as a society and as a people of faith. We have gotten away from the basic knowledge and history of our faith and our denomination. We are like the people of Israel, coming back from exile, coming back from the near destruction of their identity. And like the people of Israel some three thousand years ago, we are faced with two tasks:

1. We must make sure that everyone understands what is in the Bible, what is not in the Bible, and what it all means.

2. We must also make sure that what is truly in the Bible is what we say and do.

When we read Paul’s letters, we must understand that he is not writing to some church on a street in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossi, or Galatia; he is writing to a group of believers who have gathered in someone’s home.

This is a part of our history as a church that most people don’t know. The early church was not some building on a street in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, or Corinth; it was a community of believers. As a community, the people were interested in telling others the Good News about Jesus Christ but they were also interested in the welfare and well-being of the community and the people around the community. And it was these communities, banding together to insure all were fed and clothed and housed that were seen as a threat to the political and social establishment of the time. The threat these communities brought came not just from the message of equality, hope, and promise; it came from the actions of the early church to bring equality, hope, and promise.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians and speaks of the parts of the body, he is speaking to the community of believers as a whole. He wants them to understand that it is together that they are able to do the work that they have been called to do. It is not about everyone doing exactly the same thing but doing what it is that they do best so that the goals of the community are met.

We are faced with many great challenges in today’s society. We may want to close our doors and say to the world outside to leave us alone. But we run the risk of not seeing the world change.

But the actions and thoughts of too many are locked in a world two thousand years ago; this had lead to the creation of a church that excludes and denies, this has lead to many people turning away from the church. The message of the Bible has not changed in over two thousand years; the message of the Bible transcends time.

The key message of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments is that we are to be concerned with the poor, the oppressed, the needy and the sick. The key message of the Bible is that we are to be more than concerned; we are to be the vehicle by which the message is put into practice.

In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is not a message about going to war and saying that war is just because God is our side and not our enemies; it should be about loving our enemy and taking away the reasons for war. If we seek peace in this world, it cannot be a peace enforced by military might or political superiority.

As President Kennedy said in the commencement address at American University (a Methodist supported university) on June 10, 1963, we should seek

“a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkamericanuniversityaddress.html)

It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not about saying that someone is not welcome in a church because of their race, their creed, or their lifestyle. It is about insuring that all people on this planet have the same rights and that, as Martin Luther King put it, insuring that people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick. It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free.

The message found in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is a message that brings hope to all, not just a select few. It is a message that opens doors, not shuts them. And like the people of Israel, when this message is heard and when the people today see the message in action, they will cry.

They will cry because, like the people of Israel did that day some two thousand and five hundred years ago, they understood that God had not forgotten them and that their lives, lost for so long in exile, were found.

The message for us today is a very simple one. Having read the manual, what are we going to do?

That is the opportunity that we have today. We have come today; we have heard the message. We can now begin the task of rebuilding our community and taking the true Gospel message out into the world.

The Power of the People


Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 25 January 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.  (correction of church and date made on 19 January 2014)

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Have you ever thought about why churches are formed? What brings people together, sometimes knowing that the very act of coming together for worship will cause them to be persecuted? And the persecution of churchgoers is something neither limited to the early Christians or to countries with totalitarian governments today.

Even in America, we find historical examples of religious persecution. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) was driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before ending up in Utah. And, as one who grew up in Missouri, I am not proud that the Missouri State legislature made it virtually legal to kill a Mormon. The Missouri legal system, during the brief time the Mormons resided in Davies County, Missouri, sanctioned many forms of violence, all born out of hatred and envy. But do not think that it was only the Mormons or the Jews that were persecuted through the history of our country. Now, there is a covert persecution of Sikhs simply because they wear turbans and are confused with Muslims. We persecute Muslims simply because we do not understand the nature of Islam and confuse the actions of those who pervert the message of Mohammed with those faithful to the true meaning of the Quran.

Even Methodism has known persecution. When John Wesley first started the Methodist revival in England, he so angered the Church of England that he and those who joined with him were barred from preaching in regular churches. And when they began preaching in regular homes, a law barring those identified with the Methodist revival from preaching in private homes was passed. But the need of the people to hear the word of God was so great, Methodist preachers moved out into the fields and the countryside to preach. Even then, on-lookers routinely threw stones at the Methodist evangelists. John Wesley even reported that he had been stoned many times as a preacher in those early days of the Methodist revival.

Even in America, this persecution was felt. The oldest Methodist Church is the one down on John Street in New York (where Jason Radmacher, formerly at Grace UMC here in Putnam Valley is now the preacher). In 1768 the congregation that met down there erected a 42 by 60-foot chapel. But New York had a tax-supported state church at that time and the law did not permit congregations of other denominations to build churches. So the Methodists built the new meeting-house with a fireplace and chimney and called it a house. And prior to and during the Revolution, Methodists preachers were viewed was much suspicion, partially in the belief that they still believed in rule by England and partially because of their pacifist views. (Taken from The Heritage of American Methodism by Kenneth Cain Kingdom, pages 28 – 29. Note the material about the legal restrictions placed on Methodists preachers in England is referenced in one of my earlier sermons.)

In view of the persecution that early members of churches felt and in view of the demands placed on people today, why do people come to church? And why are more people going to charismatic or fundamentalist type churches than are going to the more traditional mainline denominations? The answer in both cases is that people are trying to find God; they are trying to find a peace in this world that they cannot find anywhere else.

You may wonder why it is I use the Mormon Church and its history in some of my sermons. Though raised in the EUB, Methodist, and United Methodists churches there have been times when I thought there was a better answer, I thought there somewhere else I could find a better connection to God. Looking at the Mormon Church and its history was one way of finding where I wanted to be. I cannot speak for others, though I suspect it is true, but those who are called the seekers and find their church home in the neo-fundamentalist and charismatic churches of today do so because they feel that is where they are going to find their connection with God. I found in the United Methodist Church the best expression of faith and practice in today’s world. That may not be what others have found or felt.

In Ecclesiastes we read that the Preacher tried practically everything he could think of but he still could not find peace. Most people read the book of Ecclesiastes as the story of a man living apart from God. But, if you look closely at the book, there are many relevant questions, searching questions about the meaning of life. In the end the Preacher writes that there is an utter futility in an existence without God. As a whole, we may be comfortable being in church Sunday morning. We, as a whole, may feel that those who are not here are doing so because they cannot find God. I say they cannot find the presence of God in the worship that takes place.

Finding the presence of God in one’s life is a private thing, but it is shared communally with all others. All the people came together to hear Ezra read the law. For their community, the law was the ultimate authority and the rule by which all life was structured. Rather than being seen as a hindrance, it was regarded as essential to life. The reading of the law is celebrated with great joy and life, for all whom heard the law also understood it. The commentaries for the verses from the Old Testament that we read today all point to the reading of the law by Ezra as a celebration and one that took several hours to complete.

The problem for many churches today is that while there is a reading of the law and the Scriptures, it is done with a routine that has taken the life out of the reading. It is not a celebration but a ritual done without thinking, done solely by rote. The law has lost its meaning.

And for Jesus, the essential nature of the law superseded an adherence to the law. But instead of understanding the law, the people of Jesus’ community simply followed the law, blinded by their narrow ideas about who has the “authority” and the “power”.

No longer is the law of God celebrated; no longer is the law of God seen as liberating. The law of God has become restrictive and the source of oppression. That is why Jesus was rejected in his own community. Those that heard the message and the statement of its fulfillment saw a man threatening to take away their power and their authority; they could not see that Jesus’ statements that day was a fulfillment of the law. (Adapted from “Living the Law” in “The Good News” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, January, 2004.)

It is interesting to speak of the law as confining or restrictive; the purpose of the laws we have today is to protect. The speed limit on the Taconic is low for a reason; yet people see it as restrictive and ignore it. They ignore it until it is too late; of course, the penalty is far greater. There are those who say the rules of the Methodist Church are too restrictive; after all, why is the basic handbook of the church called The Discipline? But the rules first set down by Wesley some two hundred and fifty years ago are not meant to restrict and confine; they are meant to define.

Our own organization speaks of the people involved. Methodist polity rests on certain beliefs about church organization:

  1. Each member is a part of the whole and cannot be separated from the larger community of believers.
  2. The individual has a responsibility to the denomination, and the denomination has a responsibility to the individual.
  3. The proper functioning of the church requires faithful leaders and loyal followers.

United Methodist polity assumes that all members share a common commitment to the doctrine and mission of the church. Harmony in the church depends on a common confession that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In addition to the worship of the Holy Trinity, Methodist church polity assumes the willingness of individuals and congregations to set aside complete autonomy and function in mutually accountable ways.

This is the same approach that I think Paul was using. The church is not a collection of individuals all looking and acting alike; it is a true collection of individuals, each of whom contributes to the growth of the church and nurture of its members. Every individual believer has a vital role assigned by God Himself. That is why we should neither boast in what we do or think too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important to God and we have a mission to accomplish here on earth.

Paul also noted that we have been given spiritual gifts for the profit of all, not for our sole benefit. Rather than being envious of other people’s gifts or positions, we should give of ourselves to others. Whenever any part of the body has a need, we should minister and help that part. But we work against that helping nature of the community when we complain about the work of others.

In verse 31 of the passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul may well have been telling the Corinthians that they improperly desired gifts that would bring attention to themselves. The greater gifts would build up the congregation, not the status of individuals. Rather than desire what was improper, they should be looking for a better expression, the expression of love that he (Paul) would write about in Chapter 13.

You will note that I have changed the order of the worship this morning. Actually I changed it last week. I was going to explain why then, but circumstances prevented me from doing so. I have always used a form of worship where the offering came before the sermon, thinking that one should not be distracted from the reading of the Gospel and the explanation of the Gospel by money.

I have always felt that doing this would allow the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. You have heard the call, so how will you answer it?

But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word. If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.

In the sixties, there was a call to bring power to the people. But too many people saw that as a call to take power. The greed and self-indulgence of the eighties quickly dissipated the egalitarian attitudes of the sixties. The people had the power when Jesus came to the synagogue that day in the Gospel reading; they did not want to give it up. Jesus expressed an idea that liberated the people, but those who heard his words knew that it would also mean that they would lose the power they hoarded and grabbed.

It is the same today. People are looking for a church where they can find God. They are desperately seeking solace in a world of trouble and turmoil. They will not find it in a place where the needs of the people subvert the needs of the community and ignore the demands of Christ. You see the gifts that we have been given, our ability to help others become because we have accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior. We have given up any claims to power so that we could be more powerful. As we celebrate the presence of God in our lives this day and this coming week, I open up the altar rail. I am not quite prepared to put the offering plate on the rail and ask that you bring your gifts to it. But while the offering is being collected, while the music is playing this day, if you want to come and pray, you are welcome. If you have some thoughts that you want to exchange with Jesus, here is the time and the place. Over the next few weeks, I am going to look for more ways that one can express thanks for the gifts that we have been given; I am going to look for more ways that one can find chances to find God in their own lives.

The power of the people is that we can find God and that we, through our word, our deeds, our service can help others to find God. The people called upon Ezra to bring God to them through the law; Jesus brought the fulfillment of the law to the people. We have the chances and opportunities to express that fulfillment even further.

 


“We, the People”


Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 21 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.

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Why are we here this morning? That is a good question for a cold and snowy day when it might be better to have stayed inside where we were safe and warm? But why do we come to church on Sunday?

It is important thing to realize is that we are able to gather and worship God. One of the primary reasons that people from Europe came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries was so that they would be free to worship God in their own manner and without the interference of the government. Not much thought was given when the Constitution was written about religious freedom but the freedom to worship was considered such a basic right of the individual that it was included in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So we gather this morning, to hear the Word of God, to celebrate God’s presence in our lives.

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But not everyone has the luxury of a nice church or building in which to worship God. The passage from the Old Testament is about the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon. Many of those who stood in the square that day had probably been born in Babylon and, thus, had never seen the homeland. And what they found when they returned to Palestine was nothing like the stories told to them by their elders. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the rebuilding of the community. Nehemiah tells of how he wept when he surveyed the scene and ruins that were once Jerusalem. After an appropriate period of mourning, he realized that his tears would not rebuild the walls of the temple but that the people working together would do so.

It was in the seventh month of that year, probably 430 B. C., the people gathered together and asked the Chief Priest to read the book of the Law to them. So starved to hear the Word, the people of Israel stood for six hours listening to their preacher read the Bible to them. And it wasn’t just the good stuff, the stories of Creation, Noah, and Abraham that they listened to. They also listened to the rules and the laws, the details about how the temple was to be built, and the dietary laws. I wonder what would happen if preachers were to read the book of Numbers and Leviticus all the way through to their congregations these days and have them stand up for the whole reading.

As they heard the Word of God spoken to them, the people began to get a sense that God did love them and that he did care for them, even in the most mundane and ordinary corners of their lives. The reading of the Word that day gave them a sense of their place in God’s world. It gave them a sense of why the temple was to be rebuilt. In reading the Law to the people, Ezra and Nehemiah were establishing the reasons for why the temple was to be rebuilt.

In rebuilding the temple, Israel’s identity could again be centered on the Law and the Temple. Through the providence of God’s redemptive acts, the identity of the people of God could be established in ways that did not exist before the exile.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, he came with great expectations. It had been reported that he was "filled with the power of the Spirit." People expected miracles. What he said that day in the synagogue was going to be evaluated in terms of peoples’ prior expectations. The difficulties Jesus had with the people of his hometown came not from what he said but from what people expected. The people of Nazareth had confused the messenger with the message. They saw Jesus in terms of Nazareth, in terms of the everyday world. They expected Jesus to perform the miracles; they did not expect Him to be the Son of God.

The failure of the people of Nazareth to hear what Jesus said that morning was that they had confused their own private interests with a commitment to the common good. The people were not willing to trust in each other to make the common good a reality.

The key to all of this, I believe, is that the people all worked towards the common goal. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, continued the point that he made in the previous chapter, the reading we heard last week. Though the gifts of the spirit are many, there is only one spirit. And though we may be different, we are all part of the same community. And by the same token, since are we different parts, we must work together in order to achieve the goals of the community.

It must have been important to Paul to stress the diversity of gifts and talents in the Corinthian community. Every Christian has been given some sort of gift and talent. With the Body of Christy, the church, we cannot distinguish as to the importance of any single gift over another. All are important; all have been tested and approved. And while it is possible to function when some of us are not hear, the results are best when all of us are together functioning as one unit.

That is part of the reason that we will throughout this year stress that we reach out to those who are not here. We, as a community, work best when we work together. Paul spoke of striving for the greater gifts. That greater gift is the unity of the body.

We all have different beliefs, we all have different ways of expressing our beliefs and worshipping God. Christianity is not one person or one idea over another. It is life inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the Lord.

Jesus spoke of the compassion that God has for all people, for "the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed." The challenge for us this morning is to give others the opportunity to hear these words, to bring the celebration of Jesus’ presence in our lives. The Israelites celebrated the rebuilding of the Temple as a renewal of God’s presence in their lives. So too do we celebrate Jesus as our Savior, renewing God’s presence in our own lives.

And with this celebration comes the challenge to make sure that others can know His presence as well.

The Message Is Clear


I was preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.
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As I read the Old Testament reading for today (1), I noted four things that I felt were relevant for today.

First was the statement that the people stood during the reading of the Law. Second, there was the statement about the fact that women and those who could hear with understanding were included in the statement about who heard the reading of the Law. There was the fact that the people cried when they heard the Law. Finally, the people were told that they should celebrate, not cry upon hearing the Law.

In verse 5, we read that the people stood as Ezra unrolled the scroll. This gesture would later become characteristic of the Jewish people during synagogue services and why we stand in reverence when we hear the Gospel Message on Sunday morning.

In verse 2, we read that the assembly gathered were “men and women and all could hear with understanding. Women are often presumed to be present in group gatherings but, in this reading of the Old Testament, they are mentioned specifically. Also, older children who have attended school, i.e., those who could hear with understanding, were also present and counted. This is quite a difference from other readings, such as the feeding of the thousands where only the men are counted and the women and children are presumed to be present.

This is, I think, important, because this was a time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity. It was not just a rebuilding of a city but the rebuilding of a people as a community of believers. And in this new community, everyone, not just men or the elders or a select few, were a part of the community, As the Law was read to them, the people were beginning to remember who they were and what they were about.

Paul speaks to us today, just as he wrote to the Corinthians so many years ago (2), about a community of believers. Just as the people of Israel were brought together in the Spirit of the Lord, so too were the people of Corinth brought together by the Holy Spirit.

Paul points out that every individual has a vital role assigned to him or her by God Himself. It is why Paul warns us about neither boasting in what we can do nor thinking too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important in the eyes of God and the community cannot exist without each member. Because God gave spiritual gifts for the profit of all, each member of the community should have the same care for one another. Rather than being jealous of other people’s gifts or possessions, we should give of ourselves to others. When one part of the body is in need we should minister and help that part.

Today, I think the problem that we face is that we are not so much interested in building communities of believers as we are building communities of people with common thoughts. We quite easily exclude from our communities those who do not fit in or who disagree with us. But when a community is made of individuals who think alike and talk alike and act alike, there is no vibrancy or energy.

We must also remember that these communities do not necessarily have to be centered on towns, cities, villages, or neighborhoods. There are some in college, who like me, found a comfort and haven in the Wesley campus ministry. For many students, college is a time of discovery and discovery of those talents that Paul wrote about. But in a time when budgets are hard pressed to match dollars given with dollars needed, cutting money for campus ministries seems to be a logical choice. It is not much money and it does not have the immediate reward that rebuilding a house on the Gulf Coast does. But how do you measure the change in the life of someone who found God in a non-descript house two blocks from campus? How do you measure the impact that the presence of a small house of God and worship will have on a group of students when the impact will not be felt for many years after college?

We, as a community of God, should be charged with building other communities, not destroying them. That is why the people came to Jerusalem; that is why we are here today. It is what we do here that is felt in this neighborhood, in this town, in this county, and in this society long after we are no longer here.

And that brings us to the third thing that I thought was interesting about this passage from Nehemiah and its relation to today. It was the nature of the message that the people who were gathered that day heard and their response to that message.

As the Law was read and explained to the gathered people, the people wept. The people wept because they heard the high standard of the Law and recognized their own low standing before the Lord. Though it is probable that Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites were glad to see this, they urged the people to remember that this was a day of celebration. It was the joy of the Lord that the people were experiencing. It is the joy that springs up in our heart because of our relationship with the Lord. It is a God-given gladness found when we are in communion with God.

It occurred because the message was clear and those who heard it were able to understand it. This is such a contrast to the messages we hear in today’s society. The message of society, both in and out of church, clouds the true message of the day and makes it difficult to discern what is true. The message heard by the people of the Old Testament reading was clear; the message of today is muddled and confusing. It is so because people are quite often willing to let others make decisions for them; they want to simply be told what the reading means.

Some forty years ago there was a song that showed us how the message of society can easily drown out the message of peace first expressed on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. It was a version of “Silent Night” sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and entitled “The Seven O’clock News.”

As they sang the traditional Christmas hymn, a announcer read the evening news. There is an interesting contrast between the beauty and serenity of the song and the darkness and fear that were then and are now the components of a typical news broadcast. The problem was that you had to focus on either the news broadcast or the singing; you could not hear both and it was entirely possible that the news broadcast with its litany of violence, death, and destruction drowned out the message first sung some 190 years ago.

The message we should be hearing from the church today is the message that Jesus proclaimed in his own synagogue in Nazareth, that He had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed free and to proclaim this the year of Jubilee”. (3)

But that message that is more often than not heard is just the opposite. It is a message of exclusion; it is a message of oppression; it is a message of ignorance and foreboding. Instead of bringing hope to people, the church seeks to take hope away. Instead of bringing in all the people, as Jesus encouraged people to come to Him, churches today tell people to stay away. If you are not the right creed, the right color, the right economic status, or live the correct life style, you are not welcome in church. That the writer of Nehemiah would count women and children, those in that society who were often ignored or forgotten, speaks volumes when compared to the rhetoric of today when we seek to marginalize those who do not fit the accepted concept.

It is a message that says it is perfectly all right to ignore the poor and blame poverty on the sins of people. It is a message that says you will get rich because you lead a righteous life. It is a message that fails to remember that those who ignored the poor, the helpless, the disadvantaged and the oppressed will not get past the doors to heaven.

It is a message that allows others to say there is no God or the hope for the future is found in other places. It is a message that allows others to say that faith is a fantasy or a delusion, not a part of one’s life.

The message heard today is one of a vengeful God, of one who will use wars, natural disasters, and the inhumanity of mankind to punish people. Yes, the God of the Old Testament was such a God but we are first and foremost a people of the New Testament. We are the people who proclaim that God is our Father. We are the people to whom God sent His only Son because He loved us.

I am not saying that every one who preaches the Gospel preaches such a litany but it is very hard to hear the message of Good News first proclaimed that day in Nazareth some two thousand years ago when there are so many others whose self-interests, greed, ignorance and hatred lead people away from God.

It is so important that that message of hope and promise be heard. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” (4) We cannot live in a world where the Gospel message is forgotten or ignored or cannot be heard.

When the true Gospel is read, such people will truly weep; not out of joy, as did the people so many years ago but out of fear, for they will be the ones who are left behind.

But how do we, individuals lost in the corporate collective of society bring the message that was first proclaimed in Nazareth some two thousand years ago?

The people of Israel concluded their hearing of the Law with the discovery that it was time for the Feast of the Tabernacle. This was the fourth thing that came out of the reading of the Old Testament for today.

That day was not a time for weeping and fear but a time for joy and renewal. We are reminded of that sense of joy and renewal in the communion that we are about to take. We are also reminded that we are a part of a larger community of believers united in our faith in Christ.

I have not been able to determine who Thomas G. Pettepiece is or was; I know what he wrote and I know that what he wrote affected a great number of people. But I have not been able to find out who he was or what he did that allowed him to write the following story. I presume that he was Irish because the word pronounced “jail” is spelled “gaol.” It stands to reason that he was in jail because of his beliefs and as we hear these words, we know that he was not alone. Thomas Pettepiece wrote,

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.
There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”
“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents the very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”
I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’ do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”
We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of the dead girl came up to me and said, “Pastor, this was real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (5)

Here was a community of believers in jail perhaps only for their beliefs. Yet, as a community of believers, they so impressed others that those others were willing to risk additional punishment so that they, the believers, could celebrate communion. And when it was over, one prisoner came up and asked to be a part of the community. Another found in the depths of their own sorrow hope.

We have the bread and the juice so we will be fed today. Ours will be a celebration of community, of being a part of a larger community in the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is because we are a part of that larger community; it is because we have heard the Gospel message first proclaimed in a synagogue in Nazareth over two thousand years ago that we must take the message of Communion out into the world.

It is a message that says to those not here today that they are missed and we want them to be a part of this community. It is a message that says we need to build more, not remove communities of builders. It is a message that says we are to welcome to all who seek to hear and know the word of the Lord, not exclude and cast out those who are not like us.

We must say to those who are confused by the message of society, who cannot distinguish between the words of charlatans and fools and the words of the Gospel that there is one true message. We must say that the message is clear and it is a message that offers hope to those without hope, it offers help to the helpless, and brings freedom to the oppressed. It is a message that says that Christ died on the Cross so that we may have freedom over sin and death. Like the people in Jerusalem so many years ago, we have heard the message and we understand. Like the people in Jerusalem, so many years ago, we say in unison, “AMEN.”
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(1) Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10

(2) 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31a

(3) Luke 4: 14 – 21

(4) President Dwight Eisenhower, quoted by Senator George McGovern in a speech to the National Press Club, 17 January 2007 (from http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011907B.shtml)

(5) From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece