“Different Pictures”


Here is the back page for the Fishkill UMC bulletin for Sunday, March 11, 2018, the 4th Sunday in Lent (Year B).

In some form or another, the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been a part of our language for almost 150 years.  And I am sure that people have used that many words in describing the art of M. C. Escher.

Many of M. C. Escher’s better-known paintings rely on mathematical themes and test the ability of the human eye and mind to see beyond traditional perspectives.Escher cube

In the Old Testament reading, snakes represented both life and death, but life only came when the people changed their way of looking at them.

In a world where prestige was based on power, it was difficult for many to accept the notion that God would sacrifice His Only Son for the benefit of all the people.  As Paul would write to the Corinthians, our view of the world changes when we accept Christ as our Savior.

As our preparation for Easter Sunday and the Resurrection ends, we have a chance to see the world differently, a world of hope rather than despair.    ~Tony Mitchell

And the Winner is . . . ?


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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There are those who proclaim that these days are the End Times and that God will surely destroy the world. But I wonder if God needs to do that; after all, we are doing a great job of it ourselves. As I thought about the Scriptures for today and what they mean in this day and age, a quote from long ago but not far away came to mind, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This was uttered by Pogo, the carton creature created by Walt Kelly. Developed in part to explain part of his thinking, the ultimate quote became the “battle cry” for the environmentalist movement in the early 1970’s (see http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm).

For a long time, we, the people of this planet, felt that we could do what we wanted with the environment of this planet. We felt that we could dump our wastes in the rivers and streams, lakes and oceans of this world and the planet would detoxify the wastes and eventually purify it. When there were very few of us, many eons ago, we could do that. But as the population of this planet has increased and the amount of waste that we generate has increased, the amount of water and air from which we gather the basic requirements of life has remained constant. Not all the water on this planet is drinkable and as we pollute our rivers and streams, we reduce the resources available for fresh drinking water. And without fresh drinking water, life is limited in scope. Remember that any search for life on other planets begins with a search for water.

The amount of air in the atmosphere is also fixed and as we pollute the atmosphere, we reduce the amount of fresh, breathable air. There is a limit to how much “recharging” the planet can do; one day we are going to find out that there is no more fresh air and no fresh, drinkable water and then we will wonder what is going to happen.

From the book of Numbers we read that the people of Israel were impatient, demanding food and water and complaining virtually every step of the way on the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. And their complaints were numerous enough that God basically said that He had enough; “the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21: 5)

But it is not just the environment that has brought us to this point in time and space. It is our relationship with other people and us. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that we all have lived among the passions of the flesh, following the desires of our flesh and senses (Ephesians 2: 3).

As long as we walk a path that says that what we want as individuals is more important than anything else, then the path we walk is a path of destruction and desolation. We have long understood that the causes of war are rooted in poverty yet, despite this knowledge, we do little to remove the causes of poverty.

In the end, we are faced with a decision, individually and collectively. We can continue the path that we are currently on; we know where it leads and what we will find when we get there. The problem is that what we find when we get there is not what we expected during the walk.

Or, we can change our ways and the path which we are taking. We have that opportunity. John’s words in the Gospel for today point out that God cares for the inhabitants of this planet. Jesus came to save all those who would believe; the next step is up to us.

As we continue that journey through Lent, to Palm Sunday, and through Holy Week, we are reminded that we are being given an opportunity to change our path, our lives, and the future. We know what the outcome will be if we do not change our ways; and if we do not change, we will lose. That is not a good outcome.

If we change our ways, if we heed the words of the prophets, of the Baptizer, and of Christ, we will repent, we will change and the outcome will be positive.

It Amazes Me


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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Whenever I write a sermon, I hope it is based on the Gospel. I also hope that what I write and what I say makes you think. But today I fear that some of you will become angry before you think.

In part that is something that amazes me. As a society, we are quick to get angry before we think. We allow our emotions to guide our actions rather than allowing our actions to guide our emotions. It appears, at least to me, that the society that we have today is one in which intellect and rational thought have given way to emotion and quick action.

I am amazed that while we have stated that this war is about bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq, we have forgotten what we fought for in our own Revolution. I may not agree with what is being said by either side on the debate of war or no war but I would say that our own Revolution was fought to insure that people have the right to express their own thoughts. Our Constitution would not have been ratified had the Bill of Rights not been included. Yet there are those who would deny us the rights given to us at birth simply because our opinions differ from theirs.

You must know by know that I am opposed to war. My opposition is not limited to just the present conflict but to all the wars that have been a part of my life. To some who know of my family background, my being a second-generation military brat, the grandson of an Army Colonel and the son of an Air Force Major, this may come as a shock. The horrors of war are often far removed from our view and we often see wars from only heroic standpoint. It was Robert E. Lee who said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” But it is in part the experiences of my grandfather and father in war that has led me to my opposition.

We speak today of the possibility of chemical warfare in Iraq. In the diary he kept during World War I, my grandfather wrote, almost casually that “Gas is no stranger to us now”. (Diary of Walter L.  Mitchell, Sr.; entry for October 15, 1918) Later, he commented on the number of causalities his unit suffered because of the German gas attacks. Both as an historian and as a chemist, I understood what that comment meant.

He was to have commanded one of the regiments that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 but medical problems forced an early retirement and he did not have to encounter the horrors that section of sand in France brought.

It was a similar casual comment that brought the horrors of World War II close to home. My dad mentioned that he was to have been part of the third wave of troops that were to invade Honshu, the main island of Japan. His, he commented, would have been the first to have the troops come ashore alive as the planners for the invasion felt the first two waves would be literally slaughtered on the beaches as the Japanese began the defense of their homeland. It was, in part, the thought of such massive casualties that lead President Truman to decide that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary.

Some will say that there can be just wars or wars that are justified. I cannot. As long as there is death and destruction, it seems to me that no war can be justified, no matter what the reasons. One historian, Victor David Hanson, has concluded that war is the natural state of mankind. Unfortunately, there are members of the present administration who agree with this assessment.  (Newsweek, 31 March 2003)

But wars bring nothing but death and destruction to combatants and non-combatants alike. For no matter how hard we try, someone is going to die and one death by unnatural causes is one death too many. The ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once said, “Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children.”

And just the roots for my own ministry were unknowingly linked to my family tradition, so too is my opposition to war unknowingly linked to my own Methodist heritage. We need to be reminded that the United Methodist Church has a long heritage of opposition to war going back to John Wesley in the 18th century.

“War”, John Wesley said, “is a ‘monster’ that cannot be reconciled to ‘any degree of reason or common sense’ — a monster bringing miseries to the warriors and to all those in the warriors’ path. Wesley also said that, “war is too often caused by national leaders, who in disregard to their people, fail to find more creative ways of settling disagreements.”

In our own Revolution, many Methodist preachers were pacifists who declined to take up arms for either side. And because these preachers refused to sign the loyalty oaths required by many of the American colonies, they were viewed as disloyal American citizens and persecuted.

But, at the same time, the church has a strong commitment to minister spiritually to the troops both home and abroad and a spiritual duty to minister to the victims of war. Both the opposition to war and the ministry to the participants and victims of war are direct consequences of the Gospel. You cannot, if you accept the Gospel, stand by idly and watch the world destroy itself; rather, you must use every means within your power to use peace and good to insure that wars do not happen.

And we are a nation that professes to be one nation under God. Yet we quickly forget or don’t understand that the God we worship today is the same God that Jews and Muslims around the world also worship. If ours is a God of peace, how can the God that Muslims worship be a God of war and hatred? Yet, that is how many people see the Islamic faith, forgetting that those who attacked us on September 11, 2001 are not representative of their professed faith. And it is that emotional side of our thoughts, our desire to avenge the deaths of 9/11 that cause us to treat American citizens who have chosen to follow Islam as if they were traitors to this country.

And I am further amazed and perhaps even more bothered by the fact that many Christian ministers profess and preach this message of intolerance and hatred. And it is not just the extreme fundamentalist preachers, who hate just about everything, that are doing so. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church suspended one of their pastors for participating in an ecumenical service following September 11th that included Muslim and Jewish representatives. And last week, one of the Christian networks found on cable TV devoted most of their broadcast to re-broadcasting their coverage of the 9/11 tragedy. I missed the reason for doing so but I can only image that it was to somehow justify our war in Iraq and inflame the passions of their viewers. That is not what the Gospel is about.

Now some will say to me that war can be justified because it is a part of the Bible. And wars are mentioned in the Bible. In fact, in the verses just prior to the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites fought a war with people living in the Promised Land. War and invasion of land was the means the Israelites used to take control of the Promised Land and God sanctioned it. But every time the Israelites went into war by themselves, feeling that they knew what God wanted them to do, they lost the battle and they lost it big. In many of the battles the Israelites fought, they were outnumbered. But they prevailed because of the presence of God. But many times they outnumbered their enemies but they failed to take God with them and they lost.

To me, many of those who use the name of God to justify this war or any war are presuming that they speak for God and not only speak for Him but are telling Him what to do. The Old Testament reading for today is a reminder that we cannot take God for granted nor can we presume to speak for Him.

It has always amazed me that the Israelites would grumble, complain, and question God in light of the fact that they had been enslaved and oppressed for so many years prior to the Exodus.

The entry into the Promised Land as outlined at this point in the Bible story is not the first. The people of Israel first stood outside the Promised Land some forty years before. But instead of trusting in the Lord and His ability to provide for them, they sent spies into the land to find out what lie ahead. Twelve spies went into the country. Ten returned and told stories designed to discourage the Israelites. They doubted the ability of God to fulfill his promise so they returned lying about what the Israelites would face. Only two of the spies with true information about the land they had been promised was their once and future homeland. Thus, the Israelites were barred from entering the Promised Land until those who had lied had died, adding another forty years of wandering. Now, after another forty years, the Israelites are still complaining. The people were again protesting the manna that God provided for them on a daily basis, calling it this worthless bread. In the contempt that they showed for the bread that sustained them, they were actually spurning God.

God does not take kindly to criticism such as this and that is why the fiery serpents came. The venom of these serpents had no antidote and caused those who were bitten to die or suffer in extreme pain. It was this pain and death that caused the people to beg Moses to intervene on their behalf. God had Moses create an image of one of the serpents and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by one of the serpents only had to look at the image Moses has placed on the pole in order to live. The raising of such a contemptible symbol ordinarily would have caused the people to shrink away in revulsion.

It was this image that Jesus referred to in his discussions with Nicodemus in John (see John 3: 14 and 15) as an analogy to his own execution by crucifixion. For Jews, crucifixion was a sign of a curse. Therefore, just as the Israelites had to look on the repugnant, uplifted image of a serpent in order to be saves, so too do we have to look at an uplifted image of Jesus on the cross in order to be saved from our sins.

And that amazes me as well. That even though we as a people then and now have done so much to forget who God is and what God has done, God has never forgotten us. And even though we often times show no love in our hearts for anyone but ourselves, God loves us enough that He sent his only son to be our Lord and Savior, to die on the cross for our sins so that we may gain eternal life.

Wars are a part of the Old Testament but we are a part of the New Testament. That means that we must realize and seek new responses to the problems of the world, not just the same old ones countless generations before us have tried.

The Gospel is a message of peace, of peace between individuals as well as between nations. But it requires a commitment, an acknowledgement that the way we were is not going to be the way we will be. I hope that we can stop and look around us, look at how we react to one another. It is not just something that our leaders must do, for they react in the way they see us reacting or in a way that they feel we want them to; it is something we must do ourselves, each day as we interact with others.

On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus stopped Peter from taking violent action. Because the price of our freedom was His death on the cross; any other action would have made our freedom impossible. The freedom of others from sin and from evil, from oppression and persecution will only come when we fully accept the Gospel message and take it with in our daily lives.

Today we are faced with a struggle between nations, a struggle that may seem to be beyond our capabilities to resolve. And it may be that tomorrow we are faced with a minor struggle, one between someone else and ourselves.

Those who say that wars are just or that wars are part of nature will say that that freedom can only come by the sword or other harsh and violent means.

But that does not have to be the case. That is perhaps the most amazing thing of all. Paul’s words to the Ephesians today evoke a new answer, a new response to the evil in this world. Paul pointed out that the Ephesians formerly walked according to the world’s way, a way walked before Christ’s presence in their lives. A way characterized by lust or strong desire. And Paul meant more that just the most obvious connotation; he included a desire for fame, power, and riches as part of this path.

Whether it was a path of moral carelessness or the dark alley of evil, it was a path that we no longer and could no longer walk. Believers are saved so that they can have a lifestyle characterized by good works. We, as believers in Christ, are called to walk in a way worthy of our calling, which means to walk in love, in light, and in wisdom.

No matter the size of the conflict, no matter if it is a conflict between two individuals or two countries, the fact that we have chosen a way to walk that differs from the past tells us that there is a solution other than hatred and violence. God has given to each one of us the ability to be a force for good in this world, perhaps in ways that perhaps we do not know.

The amazing thing is that we have a choice as to how we will react, of how we will live. With one choice, we can walk back into the darkness, back into the slavery of sin or death. But with the other choice, we walk in the light, the wisdom, and the Glory of God. Which choice shall it be?


First Aid for the Soul


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 2 April 2000.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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Back in 1965, the Boy Scout troop that I belonged to was involved in a first aid contest with other Denver area troops. The rules of the contest were very simple. Five guys from a troop would make up a team and be given a number of situations to assess and then perform the appropriate first aid. In each situation, one of the five would be the patient suffering from the symptoms as described by the judge. One of the five would be the directed caregiver who would be responsible for determining the treatment and appropriate action. And in each situation, the remaining three would perform duties as needed by the caregiver. The only person who the primary caregiver could not turn to for advice was the patient. Other than just lying there and pretending to be sick, there wasn’t much the patient could do.

So it came to be my turn as the patient. The symptoms presented were a pale and wet skin with a rapid but weak pulse. It was heat exhaustion, or as it was known back then, sunstroke. Unfortunately, the primary caregiver thought I had heatstroke. So, as he was describing how he would treat this by moving me to a cool and shady place and giving me lots of fresh water, I started to whisper, “salt water, salt water.”

I can’t adequately describe why giving fresh water to a person suffering from heat exhaustion is incorrect but it is enough to say that it would make a bad situation worse. But since I was the patient in this case, anything I said was to be ignored. Besides, the guy doing the treatment was one of those who had his own mind about things and he wasn’t going to listen to me anyway.

So, it was all over and the judge gave the team no points for the situation since the treatment resulted in my death. As he was leaving for his next situation and team, he told the leader that he should have listened to the patient.

The problem with first aid is that many times, you have only one shot at the right treatment and there isn’t much you can do if you screw it up. That is why you practice and hold contests; so that you can get it right the first time.

Life, if you will excuse the rather trite cliché, is like that. Each day we make choices. Sometimes they are the right choices; sometimes, they are the wrong ones. The writer C. S. Lewis offers an interesting view on the idea of making choices. He writes,

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God say, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven; that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)

It seems that throughout all of the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites never could get it right. From the moment they left Egypt, they complained about either the food, the water, or the living conditions. Somehow, life in Egypt and slavery always seemed to be better than freedom and living with God.

Yet, when they ran out of food, they complained but God provided them with manna from heaven. When they ran out of water, God gave them fresh water from the rocks. In the Old Testament reading for today, they again are complaining about the food and the water.

This time, God sends serpents to strike at them. With the pain of the snakebite, the Israelites realize that they have done wrong and immediately repent of their mistakes. As a reminder of their repentance and a means for asking forgiveness, God has Moses make a bronze serpent as a means of providing first aid.

I think that we still sometimes see life in the terms that Lewis outlined. If we live a good live, we are rewarded; if not, we are punished. The problem is that we often don’t want to make those choices that are going to cause us pain or anguish. The pain that comes with failure is often too great to accept. It is much better to simply not make a choice rather than have to live with the consequences of a wrong choice. But the problem with such an approach is that it never gets us anywhere. As we begin the new baseball season, it would be appropriate to point out that you cannot run to home if your foot is stuck on third base. We lose too many opportunities because we want to stay in “safe” territory.

But, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the Ephesians, living a good life, making appropriate choices is not necessarily a guarantee of salvation. The only thing that saves us is God’s grace.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, (Ephesians 2: 8)

But, if we make the choice to follow God, the other choices that we make each day become that much easier to make. God does speak to us, though we may not often hear Him, offering us guidance for the choices that we make. Sometimes it is that soft, still voice telling us, “This is the Path, walk in it.” (Proverbs 16: 12)

Jesus, Himself, had to make choices that were extremely difficult to make. Many times, He had to say no to people. He said no to the ambitious young man who wanted to follow Him, yet who would not give up all his worldly goods. He had to say no to His mother when she tried to interrupt His teaching. He said no to Judah when Judah wanted to make the ministry a political one. He said no to the temptations of the wilderness. He said no, at times, to Himself, “No, I will not run from this. I will drink the cup that is placed before me.” (John 18: 11)

Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. He (Peter) sensed danger there and he was right. However, Jesus knew it was part of a larger plan. So, he “set his face towards Jerusalem,” (Isaiah 50: 7) even knowing the consequence. Throughout it all, Jesus turned to God to help make the right choices.

It is important for us to understand that the one choice God made for us was to send his Son, our Savior, so that we could be saved. As much as we remember John 3: 16, it is as equally important that we remember John 3: 17

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3: 17)

There are going to be days when you feel tired and weak; there are going to be days when it seems that everything is going against you. And this happens to the best of people. It is times like these that a little first aid is needed and we can find it in God through our Savior. It could be that you have been searching for something to help through these troubled times. There are some choices that you can make. Fortunately, the first aid that can be applied is sufficient, and, if you need it again, it is there. God’s grace is limitless and the choice of accepting it is ours through Jesus Christ. That is the choice we have today.


In for the long haul


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday in Lent

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If you watched any major televised sporting event in the 1980’s, you would invariably spot a guy in a wild rainbow colored Afro wig holding up a sign saying “John 3:16”. This individual, known as “Rockin Rollen”, first started just trying to get attention for himself. Then it became his mission to bring his view of the Gospel to the world through the major sporting events of the time. Unfortunately, this mission took a wrong turn somewhere and it was reported that Rollen ended up in jail. But his activities inspired others to do similar stunts and we may on occasion still see Biblical references on placards during televised sporting events.

But the one reference that was posted during a game that made the most sense was a sign reportedly posted during a University of Tennessee football game in the 1980’s (probably 1988). The Volunteers started the season by losing their first five games and it was during the sixth game that a fan held up a sign saying “Luke 23: 34”. It is said that there was a great rush the next day in church among Tennessee fans as they sought to discover the significance of this phrase as it applied to college football. For those that haven’t reached for their Bible and turned to the passage, this is the passage where Jesus, on the cross, says “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The problem for churches today isn’t so much that we seek Biblical passages to use in commentary on daily lives but we use the passages to suggest that we are knowledgeable about Christ and what He would have us do. Quick references to Biblical passages have become the “sound bites” of modern Christianity.

And just as “sound bites” on television don’t hold our attention, we quickly lose our attention when all we do is turn Christianity into “sound bites.” Do we not forget that, in having declared that we are followers of Christ, it is our lives that change? As Paul notes in the Epistle reading for today (1), before we started this new journey, ours was a life of the moment. But in proclaiming Christ as our Savior, our lives change and our view of life changes as well.

As the Old Testament reading for today (2) indicates, the children of Israel were continually forgetting why it was that they were in the desert. Again, the people of Israel are screaming at Moses about the lack of food and water. It would seem that the people, having escaped slavery and seen the many miracles of God, are not content to accept manna from heaven and water from a rock. Each miracle seems to be accompanied by a demand from the people to do it again; the first time wasn’t sufficient. The “sound bite” mentality of today was even present during the days in the Wilderness!

The use of the serpents to cause the children of Israel to repent is a reminder to us of Christ’s suffering on the cross. A snake bite can cause excruciating pain and raging fevers. The commentary for this passage from Numbers suggests that there were no antidotes for the snake bites that the people were receiving.

It was the pain of the bites that drove the people to repent. Choosing a snake as an emblem of life must seem unreasonable since it was the snake that was causing the death in the first place. But, if the people wanted to live, the passage tells us that they must look at the image of the snake on the pole that Moses had created. Jesus mentioned this image in his discussion with Nicodemus (3) as an analogy to what He would encounter on the Cross. To Jews, crucifixion was a sign of the curse; therefore, just as the Israelites had to look on the repugnant, uplifted image of the snake in order to be saved, so too must we look at the uplifted image of Jesus on the Cross in order to be saved from our sins.

But, often times, we do not want to do that. We do not want to be reminded that we must make changes in our lives if we are to be saved. While we may not want to, our focus must and always be on the cross. For without the cross to remind what we are preparing for, life itself has no meaning. It is very interesting what Paul is telling us in his letter to the Ephesians this week.

Before Christ, our lives were our own and we were free to do what we wanted to. But this life was nothing, if it was anything at all. And we searched for answers but all we found or heard where the sound bites. God, for whatever reason and through Christ, offers us a way out of this short-term mentality. He gives us something that we can hold on, something that gives us reason and purpose. But we have to focus on the cross and the resurrection; we have to continue the work that Jesus started. As Paul concludes the passage from Ephesians for today, “through Christ, we are to do the work that God intended for us to do.”

So, we have a choice this day. We can keep our “sound bite” mentality and use short tidbits of information to show others how “enlightened” and “Christian” we are. Or we can decide to throw off the trappings and attitudes of today’s life and follow the life that Jesus Christ showed us, knowing that this means we are in it for the long haul. Three weeks from today, we will come to the cross. For some, this will be a “sound bite” that will quickly disappear on Monday; for others, it will mark a moment in a new life. Which will it be for you? Will your life be nothing more than “sound bites” or are you in this for the long haul?


(1) 

Ephesians 2: 1 – 10

(2)  Numbers 21: 4 – 9
(3)  John 3: 14 – 15