This will be the back page for the Sunday, March 04, 2018 (3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B) bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Services are at 10 and you are always welcome.

I had just begun thinking about this piece when I received the news that Billy Graham had died.  I do not believe that there has been anyone who has touched as many souls in their lifetime as Reverend Graham.  I will admit that even though I am properly a Southern evangelist, I was often uncomfortable with his style of evangelism.  But he was an open and honest preacher, telling you what he believed and what he felt people needed to do.  I sometimes wish that those who have taken on his mantle of leadership were as open and honest as he was.

I don’t think he ever judged anyone and while he might offer some glimpse of the future if you did not accept his offer, he didn’t make you accept his offer.  Unfortunately, too many evangelists today do just that; they condemn and ostracize you if you do not accept their view.  And we wonder why today’s church struggles.

Reverend Graham told a story that has been told for some 2000 years.  It is a story of hope and promise, of victory and celebration.  (And here you can start humming UMH #156.)

Each one of us is an evangelist.  It is part of our heritage as United Methodists.  We are here today because someone told us a story, perhaps not in words but in their actions.  And we wanted to know more about that story.  It is the same story that began at a well in Samaria when the woman told her neighbor about Jesus Christ.

Accepting Christ as one’s personal Savior is a personal choice.  But someone for to accept Christ, they must know who Christ is.  Our challenge is to keep telling the story through our words, our deeds and our actions so that others will know Christ as we do.

~~Tony Mitchell

Ten Words

I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.


One of the things that you learn when you study the Scriptures is that the Psalms are often built upon one word with each letter of that particular word starting the first word of a verse in the poem. If you will allow me that thought, you will understand why the title of this sermon is “Ten Words.” The Ten Commandments may be seen as ten words. But the discussion of those ten words goes beyond Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Sinai holding two slabs of stone.

In one episode of the television series “The West Wing” President Bartlett is preparing to debate his opponent in their campaign for the Presidential election. He and his campaign staff are struggling with a ten-word phrase to use as a response to an anticipated question.

These ten-word answers are designed to show how much each candidate knows about the topic while offering a feasible and possible answer to the particular question in a short period of time. It is, if you will, a fancy term for “sound-bite”, that little nugget of information that candidates and elected officials use to satisfy the curiosity of the public without taxing the imagination or intelligence of the public and maintaining a certain degree of credibility. Yet in the sound-bite there is little truth to be had.  The sound-bite is used to fool the electorate by making the candidate seem as he knows what he his talking about.

Now, if someone thinks that ten words constitute an appropriate and simple response to an extremely complicated question, then there is something wrong with the question and our understanding of the situation. It also says a lot about how we, the public, have allowed our leaders to denigrate our abilities to think and how we have allowed the world around us to be judged and determined by short, snappy answers. It makes me long for the sane prose of MAD magazine.

Now, it should be pointed out that President Bartlett, upon hearing the ten-word response of his opponent, quite rightly asks “what are the next ten words? What do we say next? What do we do next?” And that’s how you know that “The West Wing” is fictional; because in real life, our politicians don’t go beyond the obvious and the public doesn’t demand to know what happens next.

Of course, we know what happened after Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai to the people. In fear that the people would break the Ten Commandments, the Pharisees made 613 additional laws, 365 which were negative (“thou shall not”) and 248 which were positive (“thou shall). (1)

It is a fear that we still have in today’s society. We seek rules and laws that will control our lives instead of working to improve our lives. As Kary Oberbrunner pointed out, if we were to look at our own personal spiritual condition, we are apt to find ourselves looking like religious separatists.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them.

And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. Laws make separatists feel secure and allow them to have a control on and over their lives. To be asked to integrate their faith with the culture they have to give up such control. But this security prevents them from seeing beyond the walls of the church and reaching out to the people for whom the Gospel message was intended. The Gospel message was meant to free us, to bring hope and liberate us, not to enslave and entrap us.

They are like those who could not understand what Jesus was saying that day in the courtyard of the Temple. They saw the Temple as the embodiment of God; they could not see beyond its walls. As John noted, the disciples remembered this day and understood its significance in light of Christ’s resurrection.

And for those who try to separate their religious life from their sectarian life, there are those who just as easily mix their religious life with their daily lives. In fact, they look quite comfortable living lives as Christians. Yet, it is life which is more appearance than substance which lasts about two hours or so on Sunday mornings. Come Monday morning, they carefully take off their Christianity and put it away, safe from the world, until they next need it the next time.

Such individuals are conformists, conforming to the demands of society. They use their religion when it is convenient and put it away when it is uncomfortable. They see the message of Christ as foolishness.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the world doesn’t have a clue what God had in mind. To the world, the message of Christ was simple foolishness. They will tell you that Christianity is fine for Sunday but doesn’t work in the real world on Monday morning.

I cannot help but think of a 1939 Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”. In the closing verses of this song, Guthrie wrote,

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home. (

To many in the establishment 2000 years ago, Jesus was an outlaw going against the status quo of the conformists and the legal structure of the separatists. It does not matter whether we see Jesus as an outlaw or, as Paul suggested, a fool. What does matter is that the message that Christ brought to this world is the message that the world needs to hear today! But it cannot be heard if society sees Christ’s representative on earth (and that would be us), as representatives of a legal monolith that seeks to keep people out of the church through imposition of legal structures and repressive laws. Society will not listen if they see the church as hypocritical, preaching love, forgiveness, and redemption on Sunday but practicing inequality, retribution, and hatred on Monday.

We know that John Wesley started off with a very legalistic interpretation of the Gospel and how to achieve salvation. He saw the path to the cross in a very legalistic and structured life; but it turned into a life that lead to despair and frustration. It was only when he accepted the Holy Spirit, when his heart became strangely warmed, that he was able to ignite the Methodist Revival that changed England.

The world around us demands the presence of the people of Christ. It is time that the Gospel is heard as it was meant to be heard, not as it is being heard. But it will not be heard unless we remember the words that Christ began His mission with. He began with a call for repentance, a call for the people to change their lives and their thoughts. Lent is a season of preparation. It is time to repent of our old ways and begin anew.

It is not about ten words; it is about what we do after we hear the words. No ten words can resolve the problems of the world; no ten words can ever magically get us into heaven. But we have heard the words that will; they are the words of Christ and now we must act on those words.

(1) This and material about conformists and separatists adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner.

Knowing the Law

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 23 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.


In what seems many years ago now, I was a football official. It was something of a family business as my father and my two brothers were also officials. It was something I enjoyed doing and up until my career ending knee injury, one with great promise as an avocation.

Most people barely see the football officials during a game and when they do, it’s because a call made went against their team. So they don’t realize that many of these game officials started off as my brothers and I did working the weekend elementary school games. Just as players learn the game at the lower levels, so too do the football officials. The fun part of doing these elementary games is that the officials see plays that never occur during the college and pro games so familiar to weekend television viewers.

Unfortunately the downside of doing these games is that most coaches and the adults who supervise the games do not know the rules for their leagues, trusting in their own understanding of the game gathered from when they played or from what they see on Sunday television. It has been said that the most common call made by an official during a Saturday morning elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!”

One particular Saturday always sticks out in my mind when it comes to the lack of knowledge coaches can show. The particular play involved an illegal forward pass on fourth down. As soon as I began discussing the options with the defensive captain, his coach started yelling for him to decline the penalty, even though he didn’t know what the penalty was or the consequences which in this case was a 5 yard penalty plus loss of down.

I explained to the captain, who was probably no more than twelve, that he had two options. “Son, if you decline the penalty, it will be your ball right here. But if you accept the penalty, I will walk off five yards (pointing in the direction of his goal post) and it will be your ball there. What do you want to do?” And while I am telling him this, his coach is screaming virtually at the top of his lungs to decline the penalty. But the captain chose the right option and accepted the penalty. While I am walking the five yards, the coach is screaming that his captain is an idiot and doing so in a tone best left not described at this time. But, as soon as I indicated that the penalty is for an illegal forward pass and that it is now first and ten for the defense, the coach’s voice change in tone and words from anger and abuse to joy and congratulations as he told me what a great call I made.

Like so many of the coaches at the level, this one did not know the rules of the game nor the associated penalties. The rules of football were made to insure that the game is played safely and there were too many times in my career when I thought I was doing it solely to protect the kids from their coaches and their own lack of knowledge. I liked officiating but situations like the one I described made it more work than fun and took away the enjoyment that I got out of the game.

It is the same in our lives. We don’t always understand the laws that govern our lives nor are we aware of what some of the laws are about. We find ourselves in a society where the slightest transgression is likely to end up in court or where, instead of protecting us, the law is used against us.

We claim that our laws find their basis in the Ten Commandments; we even claim biblical justification for many of our country’s laws. Slavery for a long time was claimed to be a justifiable act of commerce, simply because slavery is acknowledged in the Bible. Our laws of segregation were based on an interpretation of the Bible that said that the races should not mix. Yet, when put against a moral background, slavery and all that followed simply is a bloodstain that cannot be wiped out. We find ways to justify killing, whether in peacetime or war, simply to get around the basic commandment that though shall not kill.

We have to realize that laws are a set of rules that govern the behavior of individuals in society. The word law reflects the Greek understanding of the Hebrew word “torah“. But torah is more properly translated as “instruction” and the content of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible, differs significantly from the term “law” as we usually understand it.

The Ten Commandments have always been the basis for Western law but they were not intended to be. We should see them as an instruction guide for life, a way of living with God. The Ten Commandments were and are first and foremost a statement of the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai. The first three commandments relate to our relationship with God, the last seven our relationship with others. But over the years, the relationships expressed in the Ten Commandments became the basis for law and the observance of the law became a characteristic of the covenant. This restatement of the covenant into law was further restated and elaborated, ultimately resulting in what became known as the Law of Moses.

It was the Law of Moses that stated that only unblemished animals could be sacrificed in the temple for religious purposes. It was also the Law of Moses that required every Jewish male over the age of nineteen to pay a temple tax. As a result, moneychangers and sellers of clean animals took up shop in the outer court of the temple. The moneychangers were needed because it was considered sacrilegious to use Roman coins to pay the tax or give as offering. This was because the emperor’s likeness was on the coin and because the emperor was considered a god, it would have been blasphemy to use those coins. So they needed to be changed into acceptable coins. Similar, pilgrims to the temple may have brought the wrong kind of animal or not have brought one at all, so it was necessary for them to get a clean one, either by purchase or trade. But the exchange rate for the coins and the cost of the clean animals was generally exorbitant and the cause for Jesus’ anger, as we read in the Gospel today.

Jesus’ anger came from the fact that the priests were using the law for their own gains and not to help people reestablish their relationship with God. Paul was faced with similar problems in the early church; to some, observance of the law was necessary before salvation could occur. The insistence by some early church leaders that Jewish rituals be obeyed prevented or hindered the spreading of the Gospel among the Gentiles.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism was a highly diversified phenomenon, with various groups interpreting the Old Testament in their own ways and for their own purposes. This pluralism went far beyond the content of the interpretation of particular passages.

But Jesus spoke to a popular and unsophisticated audience that cared nothing for elaboration or deep explanation of the laws. Jesus’ target was not the law itself but rather any style of interpretation that removed its immediacy as teaching to the people. The law is supposed to help people, not hinder them, but the law at the time of Jesus had become so complex and complicated that the common person could not understand it.

The foolishness that Paul speaks of in the letter to the Corinthians is the message of the Gospel, of being in a loving relationship with God and others. This Gospel message does not always conform to the world’s priorities, hence it is foolish to think in those terms. But remember that when someone said that one should exchange an eye for an eye, Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. It was foolishness to some of the Corinthians because it did not fit the logic of life and could not be derived from the law. Paul’s reference to the wise, the scribes and the debaters was directed at those who would use logic to solve the problems of the world. But this logic was a logic that expected violence to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It was a logic that created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but ultimately created a world so complex and confusing as to lose its purpose.

It was our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to the end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.

Thus, we are in the midst of the season of Lent, deciding if we are going to be foolish and follow the path to the Cross or wise and follow the logic of the world. We must decide if we can continue to accept the tired logic of mankind that only brings misery, war and death and which ignores the cry of the needy and the oppressed. Or shall we follow the absurdity of a crucified Christ, who gave up every thing, so that we would be saved. We are called to remember that to follow the cross is to give up every thing yet win everything. This is clearly not a logical idea, but it is the idea of the cross.

Jesus prevents us from thinking that life is simply a matter of ideas to ponder, concepts to discuss, or just a series of rules that must be followed. Jesus saves us from wasting our times pursuing cheap thrills and trivializing diversions. Jesus enables us to take seriously who we are and where we are without being seduced by the intimidating lies and illusions that fill our daily lives. Jesus helps us keep our feet on the ground and allows us to be who we are rather than trying to be someone else or somewhere else.

He keeps us attentive to the children, in conversation with ordinary people, sharing meals with friends and strangers, listening to the wind, observing the wildflowers, touching the sick and wounded, praying simply and self-consciously. Jesus insists that we deal with God right here and right now, in the place we find ourselves and with the people we are with.

When Jesus was asked by a lawyer which commandment was the greatest, He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all soul, and with all your mind.” And then He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.” We are reminded during this time of preparation that knowing the law is not the same as upholding the commandments. During this time of preparation we should seek to reestablish that relationship between God and us first established on Mount Sinai and then again expressed on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

There are times when we must know the law, especially as it applies to our daily interactions with other people. But it is just as important and maybe even more so that we understand and better know our relationship with God, a relationship that was reestablished on Calvary’s hill so many years ago and perhaps forgotten in our application of the law. As we continue in this season of preparation, let us remember that Christ died for us. Our task in the coming days is not simply to know the law, but rather let others know through our thoughts, our deeds, and our words that there is more to life than the law, that life is itself is found through Christ.

Signs (2000)

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 26 March 2000.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.


One of the joys of long-distance driving before the days of the interstate was the chance to see what was called barn art. Barn art, as I call it, was simply the painting of advertisements on the sides of barns and while it may not have been common in New York, it was very common through the Midwest and South. In fact, in some parts of Missouri today, you see the remnants of barns with advertisements to see Meramec Carverns, a park just outside St. Louis on Interstate 44, the old route 66.

Another such sign common throughout the South was one advertising Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the points, besides its being the focal point for a major battle during the civil war, is that you can see six states from its summit. One summer back in the 60’s, as we were returning from North Carolina and visit with my mother’s folks, my brother Terry (who was about 8 at the time) kept pestering my mother to take him to Lookout Mountain. Finally, she relented and we stopped to visit this place.

But, after we got to the top of the mountain and looked at the six states, Terry was greatly disappointed. Yes, you can see parts of six states from the top of Lookout Mountain (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia) but he had assumed that there would be signs saying “This is Virginia, this is Tennessee, etc.” sticking up on the horizon pointing out the states. Of course, such signs could not exist and the only way you knew what you were looking at was to know what direction you were facing and referring to maps posted.

The thing that the Gospel points out is that the signs we see are often not the ones we are looking for and the signs we are looking for are often never found. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a Messiah but what they wanted was not what Jesus was offering. In verse 18, the authorities wanted a sign from Jesus that He was the Messiah but His answer, referring to Him and the coming resurrection, was not an answer they could understand.

The same is true today. How should we respond to the signs around us? We must, first of all, obey the command of Christ to read the signs of the times. But we are also required to head the warning in several of His parables to be open for the surprising claims of God pressing in upon us through our neighbors. All of the parables in Matthew 25 point this out.

“But when I, the Messiah, shall come in my glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.”

“Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me.'”

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

“And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.'”

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.'”

“And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 25: 31 – 46)

There is a inveterate tendency to believe that our ‘way of life’ is the best way to health for all. Throughout the ages, this has been the case. We think of John Wesley as the first social reformer but in many of the sermons of that time, there was real concern for the lower classes. But it was assumed that if the working classes were to be save and enter into Christ’s purpose for them then they must take on the culture of their betters who stood as a living sign to these outcast of what happens to our raw, untamed, animal nature with all its sins (i.e., the working class life) when the grace of God tames it and begins to fulfill it (i.e., the life of the better classes). In other words, it was assumed that the will of God was to make ‘them’ like ‘us’. It was probably because Wesley went to these people, not to make them like their betters, but to enable them to find the way of Christ for themselves in their own world, that he was so bitterly attacked. His missionary presence with the lower classes was a judgement upon the ideological assumption of the privileged and so threatened the security of their prejudices that they assumed to be the will of God.

Our first question must be one of how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our task is to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by his grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment, not the bringers of that fulfillment.

This means that we see our missionary task under the sign of the cross, as Paul wrote the Corinthians about in today’s reading from the Epistle. We see that the way of mission is the servant way in which we are freed from conformity to the world’s assertive ways and transformed to the way Christ assumed in his ministry for us. Wesley sought a church which cared for society and which would make the world a better place. After all, as I read from the Scripture, Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or take care of the needy, not the government. Jesus also warned us what the penalties would be should we ignore the needy:

“‘There was a certain rich man,’ Jesus said, ‘who was splendidly clothed and lived each day in mirth and luxury. One day Lazarus, a diseased beggar, was laid at his door. As he lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores. Finally the beggar died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham in the place of the righteous dead. The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went into hell. There, in torment, he saw Lazarus in the far distance with Abraham.'”

“‘Father Abraham,’ he shouted, ‘have some pity! Send Lazarus over here if only to dip the tip of finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in these flames.”

“But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted and you are anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us, and anyone wanting to come to you from here is stopped at its edge; and no one over there can cross to us.'”

“Then the rich man said, ‘O Father Abraham, then please send him to my father’s home — for I have five brothers — to warn them about this place of torment lest they come here when they die.'”

But Abraham said, ‘The Scriptures have warned them again and again. Your brothers can read them any time they want to.'”

“The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham, they won’t bother to read them. But if someone is sent to them from the dead, they will turn from their sins.'”

But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even though someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19 – 31)

Finally, we must seek the signs of Christ’s presence as well as signs of resistance to his presence in the key struggles that are taking place in the events of our time. The battle today for man’s concern for freedom, his concern for others, his longing to be free from despair can all be seen in the light of Christ’s ministry and his presence in the world today. The danger that we have to be aware of is that we impose our values rather than those suggested by the vision of the goal of history as given to us by Christ. Our mission, as it regards the values of the world today, is to make it possible for others to see them or rediscover them in the light of God. It is for us the responsibility to bear witness within the values the modern world contains, and to live by them while at the same time transcending them but to also witness to the values that the modern world has forgotten.

In seeking to express our understanding of the forms of Christian presence required of us today, we need to know our world by all the skills of knowledge that it provides. We must be open to it; know its heartthrobs. If we do not know what the world is like, if we seek to make the world in our own image, it will be difficult for us to be successful.

When God made his covenant with Moses and gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, it was more that just the presentation of ten earthly laws. A covenant is a two-part agreement. Each party to the agreement agrees to certain actions. In the covenant of the Ten Commandments, God promises to be the guardian of the people of Israel. In return, the Israelites will follow the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are more that simple the basis for common law in this country; they are the basis for our lives and our moral codes. They are the way we are to live each day.

The challenge for us is very simple. How shall we let others know of Christ’s presence in the world. As Peter wrote

“God has given each of you some special abilities; be sure to use them to help each other, passing on to others God’s many kinds of blessings. Are you called to preach? Then preach as though God himself were speaking through you. Are you called to help others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies, so that God will be glorified through Jesus Christ – to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10 – 11)

When I first read the scriptures for this Sunday and the comments by the people to Jesus about seeing more signs, I thought about a song from the 70’s entitled “Signs” by the Five-Man Electric Band. The opening lines talk about “signs, signs, signs, everywhere there are signs.” But what is important for today is the closing verse of that song. For at the end of the singer’s journey, he came to a sign outside a church that said “Everyone welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray.”

We have a sign outside the church that is blank. What are we to do with that sign? And, though it is still March, our thoughts have slowly begun to think about the year 2000 Church Conference. One item that will be brought before the people of this church at that time is the preparation of a mission statement, a sign of what this church believes in. Each member of this congregation is a member of the Church Conference and, as such, has input into what that statement should state. As this year progresses, I want us to be thinking about what that statement should be. Your input is needed if this is to be a viable sign in the life of this church. You can give your thoughts to members of the Evangelism Committee or myself and as the statement takes form, we will keep you posted.

There was one other sign that stood on the side of the road when you went driving in the 50’s and early 60’s. It was the collection of poetry that always had the same last sign. For those who can recall, I am talking about the Burma-Shave signs. A poem was written on four of the signs and the last one read “Burma-Shave.”

There is a similar sign at the end of our lives. Our journeys are different and the scenery we see is different. What we do on those journeys will always be different from others but in each, others begin to see Christ’s presence in our lives. The sign at the end is the empty tomb, a symbol of Christ’s power over death and sin. There are signs all around us. Which one do you see?


The Law Fulfilled

Here are my thoughts for this, the 3rd Sunday of Lent.

We are presented with an interesting image of Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. (John 2: 13 – 22) Instead of the quiet, contemplative teacher, we find an angry Jesus forcibly and physically clearing the Temple of the money changers and other merchants doing business with the many pilgrims who had come to the Temple for worship. It is an action that not many, either His disciples or His critics, expected. And it is in contrast to the Old Testament reading for today (Exodus 20: 1 – 17), the Ten Commandments. How can we relate a reading of the Ten Commandments with Jesus’ actions in the Temple?

The Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites by God after, not before, He chose them. He did not say “keep these commandments and you will become my chosen people.” Rather, God said that because you have been chosen and saved, you will want to live the kind of life that will lead to salvation. Robert Schuller wrote, “God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”

The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts. The first deals with our relationship with God:

  1. Put God first in everything
  2. Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
  3. Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
  4. Set aside a day to rest and remember God.

The second deals with our relationship with others:

  1. Show respect for your parents.
  2. Do nothing with the intent to harm another person.
  3. Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
  4. Respect the rights of others.
  5. Respect the reputation of others as well as their lives and property.
  6. Care about others, not about their possessions.

God did not force the Israelites to accept these laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and He let them know what would happen if they chose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings on the people if they obeyed the commandments. (But note that the commandments do not say just do good and you will be rewarded; nor did the commandments or the covenant say when the blessing would come.) This became the foundation of what we call the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17: 1 – 7, 15 – 16), this was between God and Israel.

Over time, the relationships expressed in the Ten Commandments became the basis for the laws of society and the observance of the law became a characteristic of the covenant. This restatement was further restated and elaborated, ultimately becoming what was known as the Law of Moses.

And, over time, the laws and the interpretations of laws based on the Ten Commandments were so restrictive as to make it impossible to live. So afraid were people afraid of breaking the Ten Commandments that 613 additional laws were written and codified. Three hundred and sixty-five of these laws were negative in nature (beginning with “thou shall not”); the other 248 were positive (beginning with “thou shall”) but still limiting in what one could and could not do. (From “The Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner, page 37)

It was the Law of Moses that stated that only unblemished animals could be sacrificed in the Temple for religious purposes. It was also the Law of Moses that required every Jewish male over the age of nineteen to pay a temple tax. But only certain animals, declared without blemish, and only acceptable coins, ones without the likeness of the emperor, could be used. So the moneychangers were needed to change the money and others were needed to sell the pilgrims coming to the Temple the “correct” type of animal. But the exchange rate for the money and the cost of the animals were often exorbitant. Thus, a moment that was supposed to be special became another instance of exploitation and oppression.

In that day, salvation was only possible through a strict obedience to the law. But if the laws of society are restrictive, salvation becomes either hopeless or impossible. When the laws of society are restrictive, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing the wrong thing and no time doing what is right. Remember that Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath and the Pharisees complained that this was in violation of the Commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. But Jesus pointed out that doing that which helps can never contradict the commandments.

The society in Jesus time was a society in which obedience to the law was the only way to salvation. But God gave the law to the Israelites after he had saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation, believing in God is.

There is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. For so many years in the beginning of this country slavery was claimed to be a justifiable act of commerce, simply because slavery was mentioned in the Bible. Our laws of segregation were based on an interpretation of the Bible that said that the races should not mix. But when put against a moral background, slavery and all that followed is a bloodstain that cannot be wiped out. You cannot write laws that suppress one group or individuals, for when you do that, you suppress all.

Growing up in the south, it was not hard during the sixties to ignore the consequences of segregation. When I lived in Alabama in 1962, students, both white and black, in schools in Alabama had to buy their books at bookstores because school boards did not want to provide free books. If your parents could afford to buy the books, then you had the books you needed; if your parents could not afford the books, then you suffered the consequences. In 1966 and 1967, the music programs at the schools in Tennessee got the same amount of money each year. But it was hardly enough money to buy sheet music, let alone repair and buy new instruments. If the band or choir director wanted more music or needed instruments, then you had to raise the funds yourself. Most music programs had booster programs for that reason. So schools where the booster organization had the resources got better instruments and better support; if the booster organization didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should prevent injustice, not cause it.

Yet, in a world where there is so much injustice and oppression, there are voices calling for more laws, more restrictions. They claim that these laws are based on the Ten Commandments, even if the Ten Commandments were only intended as an instruction guide for life. Yet, even while they are fighting to put the Ten Commandments in our daily lives, it is clear that they do not follow the rules themselves.

Many who support the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in daily life work against abortion but easily find justification for the death penalty. Instead of speaking out against war, injustice, and oppression, they find ways to justify wars and prevent individuals from receiving aid, even if we are not supposed to bring harm to others.

Jesus’ anger in the Temple that day was because the rules of society were preventing people from maintaining their relationship with God. The rules of society made it impossible for people to be with God, let alone even know the existence of God. We live in a society today where too many people do not even know who God is. We call these individuals “seekers” and we do it for good reason; they are seeking to find something, even if they do not know what it is. These seekers do know one thing; that the world is in shambles and there must be a way to correct it. They are quite willing to listen to those who argue that we need stronger laws; they are quite willing to listen to those who preach an Old Testament way of life and forget that Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

The Pharisees and other leaders of Jesus’ day did not go away on that Resurrection Sunday some 2000 years ago. They are still here today, seeking to control what one thinks and says and does. They are the ones Paul is referring to his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25) as the wise. Paul writes, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.” Paul was referring to those who sought to control society through their laws and restrictions on life. But, as Paul writes, they do not know who God is so there is no way that they can tell others what they do not know. As Paul noted, it was the Christ crucified on the cross that overcame the wisdom so it must be Christ that we live by.

It is not our responsibility to point out the foolishness of those who seek to live by the law; for their foolishness will be seen in due time. Each Sunday in Lent we come closer to that moment in time that defines who we are and what we are to become. Each Sunday we come closer to the victory of Christ over sin and death, the victory that gives us life and freedom. So, in this season of preparation, what are we to do? How shall we meet the responsibilities laid down so many years ago on that mountain in the desert? How shall we meet the responsibilities given to us by Jesus Christ when he proclaimed the Gospel message to heal the sick, comfort those in need, and free the oppressed?

We do so by leading a life guided by the Ten Commandments and led by Christ. We do so by showing others that Christ is alive in this world by our words, our thoughts, and our deeds. We lead a life that is the law fulfilled.