“What I Am Not Giving Up for Lent” (4) – Scripture

This will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, March 31, 2019 (4th Sunday in Lent, Year C).

It has long been a mantra in science that something didn’t happen if it wasn’t written down.  The owner of a patent or a scientific discovery has been decided on the information written in someone’s research notebook.

The philosopher Joseph Campbell noted that there is an element of truth in every myth.  It is up to the reader to search out the truth behind the myth.

The Scriptures are a written record, not of history or science, but of  humankind’s relationship with God.  The book of Genesis may have come about as a means of explaining who we are and how we came to be.

It is our responsibility to understand that there is a story behind what has been written down and it is our responsibility to find out what that story is.  Why, for example, did Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek?  Only through study do we understand that this was not an act of passive submission but a major act of defiance.

The Scriptures tell us of our relationship with God and others.  We must use the ideas presented in the Scriptures in conjunction with our reason, tradition, and experience to have a lasting faith.

I will not give up the Scriptures nor will I give up my faith but I will use the Scriptures and what they tell me about my relationship with God to better help others find their relationship with God.       ~~Tony Mitchell

Rage Against The System

A Meditation for 6 March 2016, the 4th in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32

I know how some people will read the Old Testament reading for today. Throughout the Exodus, God provided the people with the basic nutrition in the form of manna that they would need to survive. And now, having arrived in the Promised Land, the manna has stopped and the people must live on the food that was produced in Canaan. I am sure that some people will see this as a sign that government has no business helping people and that the people themselves must provide the food.

Okay, I will buy that argument but only if you remember that it is all the people who are involved in the production of the food and all of the people share in the bounty. And remember the statements elsewhere in the Old Testament that widows, the elderly, and orphans are to be cared for by society as a whole. Jesus will refer to that policy later on. And yes, Paul and Luke (in Acts) both pointed out that those who refuse to participate may be left out.

So, let’s break this down. Those who refuse to work (key word being refuse, not unable) will not get anything. If there are no jobs, then society has a problem. And society has a problem if it refuses to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

We cannot arbitrarily decide who is in our community, especially when we all share the same resources of air, water, and food. Paul continues this thought about the nature of society by noting that it isn’t what we see when we look at someone that counts, it is what is inside the person.

Somehow I think we are missing this point. There was a time when we were moving towards a society where everyone was equal, where as Martin Luther King said, one is judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And yet it seems today that not only do we judge people by the color of the skin, we judge them by their sexuality, their economic status, and perhaps even the basis for their faith.

And the worst part is that you cannot look at someone and know what their sexuality is, what their economic status might be, or even what they may believe.

It comes down to this, at least in my own mind. It is one thing to have a good life that you have achieved on your own and without any help from anyone; that is the best possible outcome in today’s world. But there is something wrong with a system that allows a few to gather all they can at the expense of all the others and then work to keep for themselves and never let others even have a chance.

It seems to me that today many people are angry with the system in which we live. And their anger is directed towards those who, they feel, are the cause of the problems. But who benefits from all of this?

We are told that businesses cannot sustain a living wage, yet in places where there are living wages, businesses thrive. Why do the rich want to keep workers at the minimum wage? Why do businesses send jobs overseas? Could it be that they don’t want to pay the workers and would rather keep the money for themselves?

And these same people push their followers to rail against the welfare system. Let’s face it, nobody should be on welfare, at least as it is today. In terms of what one receives while on welfare today, you cannot survive. And if you are trying to support a family, it is even worse. And if you can find evidence that those on welfare have it better than you, please provide the evidence because, as far as I know, it doesn’t exist except in the clouded, deluded minds of opponents.

And while you are railing against the expense and fraud of the welfare system and calling it a waste of taxpayer money, where is your anger against the military-industrial complex that drives the budget of the Pentagon and Homeland Security Agency? If there is fraud on a massive scale in the various social agencies, then there must be extremely massive fraud in the Pentagon and Homeland Security. But no one says anything about those expenditures.

Casey Stengel once said that the secret of good managing was to keep the players who haven’t decided if you were a good manager away from those who were sure you were a bad manager. It strikes me that those in positions of power would very much want those who do the work to fight amongst each other in order to keep the pressure off them.

If those without have to fight amongst themselves for the few crumbs that fall from the master’s table, we will never have a free and equal society.

In a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968 (the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated), Robert Kennedy said,

When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

Senator Kennedy also noted that the lives of all those who live and share this planet are too short for the type of spirit which lead to the assassination of Dr. King to continue.

If our rage against the system is a rage against others, we will never change the system. If our anger is directed towards our brothers and sisters, how can we ever expect to change the system?

Did the older son in today’s Gospel reading rejoice when his younger brother came home? Or was he angry that his younger brother, having wasted his share of the family fortune, was now coming home to take his share as well?

Did not Jacob fear the reunion with his brother Esau? But did not Esau, for all the troubles that Jacob had caused, rejoice in the reunion of the family?

How did Joseph react when his brothers came to Egypt? Joseph could have easily had them all thrown into jail for what they had done to him (and I am sure that the laws of that time would have allowed such an action).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

Personally, I think that we need to rage against the system, the system that says it is alright to hate someone because of the color of their skin or their sexuality or their economic status. We should rage against a system that turns brother against brother and country against country, solely for the dominance of the world.

We should be working for a system where everyone shares, where everyone shares in the produce of the world and no one has to suffer. We have been shown a way to achieve this and we have the ability and the skills to achieve it today.

We have a choice. We can continue on the path that we are walking, allowing the system in which we live to consume and destroy us. Or we can repent of our ways and our past and walk a new path, one in which we work to ensure that all who live on this planet share of God’s resources.

“The Decision We Must Make”

I am at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY this Sunday morning, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013). The service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. The Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32. Part of this message was given at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, on Saturday, March 9th and entitled “The New Paradigm”.

When I began preparing this message I thought about what I wanted to title it. For me, the title is the key thought that I want to express in the message and also perhaps link the three Scripture readings together.

At the beginning this proved to be a little difficult because there seemed to be no link between the three readings. But the link would appear and I would also find the words that would be the focus of the message I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday.

The link appeared and the title came to me when I saw that “Amazing Grace” was one of the hymns that we could use for this Sunday. The popularity and power of this hymn is such that Bill Moyers once did a one-hour documentary on the song (see “http://www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_es_religious.html”) and its popularity as a folk song. The song speaks to me, in part, because the melody comes from our Southern heritage. But it is the story behind its writing that speaks to the power of God’s Grace and what it means for us. It is a story that many people do not know.

John Newton was the author of the hymn and he was a British ship captain in the mid and late 18th century. Like so many other ship captains, he was involved in what was politely called the triangle trade, of sailing from England to Africa with a load of rum which would be sold there. From Africa, he would sail to the Americas with a cargo of slaves to be sold. He would pick up a cargo of sugar in the Americas to be shipped to England and made into rum which would complete the triangle and begin the process anew.

It was a very lucrative business and John Newton became very wealthy. But on one of those sailing trips, the storms that define sailing in the Atlantic were far rougher than normal (keep in mind that it was similar storm that caused John Wesley to begin having doubts about his own life and mission). The severity of the storms began to give John Newton cause to think about his life and what he was doing. When Arlo Guthrie sings “Amazing Grace” at one of his concerts, he tells the audience that John Newton turned his shipped around and began a new life.

However, it does not appear that this is what he did. But it was clear that he began to question the morality of a business that involving the selling and transportation of other humans and he began to change his life. He would leave the sailing business altogether and ultimately become a vicar in the Church of England, a leading anti-slavery advocate, and a writer of many hymns, some of which are in our own United Methodist Hymnal today.

The one question that we might ask today is “which son in the parable of the lost son was John Newton?” Was he the younger son, who took everything he had and squandered it away, whose life was such that he was reduced to eating corn cobs? Or was he the older son, who stayed home and worked for his father and lived the proper and correct life?

And how should we see our own experiences in this story and in the story, perhaps, of John Newton?

The New Paradigm

As some of you know, I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. In my studies, I had to take a course in the philosophy of science and I was introduced to Thomas Kuhn and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book, Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift.”

I happen to think that this is one of the most abused phrases in the English language today. Everytime someone makes some sort of change in something, they refer to it as a “paradigm shift.” But change alone cannot do that. What Kuhn meant by a paradigm shift was a complete change in thinking.

Too many people today think that any change in the way we do things, especially if it is radical or steps outside the normal operation, is a paradigm shift. The church today, be it the church in general, a specific denomination, or a specific church within a denomination, is faced with the problem of reaching out to many people. So they seek to be “hip” or “cool”, offering upbeat music with guitars and drum or having their pastor wear outlandish Hawaiian-style shirts and blue jeans while preaching from a pulpit-less stage. If you see some of these pastors today, look closely at the stage and tell me where the cross is; I don’t think you will find it because, as I have written and others have noted, the cross scares people away from the church. So churches have come up with ways to bring people back to the church. But I will tell you this; it does not matter if you have the hippest or coolest church in town and your pastor really digs what’s happening, if the message that the church gives is the same old tired message, it won’t work. It doesn’t do any good to change the appearance of things if the thinking behind the changes is the same old stuff.

Consider the following if you will and when you answer the question, think of the answer a child would give – does the earth move?

Now, hopefully we know that the earth is moving around the sun and the solar system that it is a part of is moving through the universe. But when we see the clouds above us move or we watch the stars move across the nightly sky we can conclude that the earth is stationary and it is the universe that moves around us.

Early astronomers were so convinced of this that our first model of the solar system placed an immovable earth at the center. As it happened, this model worked quite well for over 1000 years or so. But as we gained new information about the stars and the planets, it began to run into difficulty. To keep the earth-centered model with all of the information that we were gathering required constant tinkering with the model. All this did was make the model more and more complicated and more complex.

When this happened, the astronomers of that time had to make a decision. It was either try to force the model to work, despite the evidence that it wasn’t, or step back and create a newer model. And this, of course, is what was done; led by the work of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, astronomers created the sun-centered model of the solar system.

The only way that this model could have been created was to step back and re-think the solution, not merely make force the old solution to work. This is what Kuhn termed a paradigm shift, a changing not in the way we do things but in the way we think about the solution. Such a change is often met with resistance and, some times, hostility. We are quite aware that the 15th century church saw this change in the solar system as an attack on the church. And we know how that turned out.

It was noted in the Gospel reading for this morning that the Pharisees and other religious authorities were very upset because Jesus ate with the sinners and others with questionable reputations. One can understand why; it violated every known rule of social behavior. And it seems that Jesus gave little thought to the purity codes that dictated one’s life in those days.

The mere act of eating with those who were sick or through some action of life were deemed ritually unclean made Jesus and those who sat with the sinners also unclean. And if you were unclean and failed to follow the proper procedures to regain your cleanliness, you would not be allowed to enter the Temple.

And if you could not enter the Temple, how would you ever hope to meet God? In being with the sinners and telling them there was a new way to meet God, Jesus was striking at the very core of religious life in Israel.

The people of that time had been brought up with the notion that only a select few could meet God. And one might hope to meet God if they followed the regimented life of laws and regulations that were imposed on them and enforced by the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Yet here was Jesus telling them there was another way. How many times did Jesus say that when you were with Him, you were with the Father? How many times did Jesus say that the way to the Father was through Him?

Jesus made it very clear that there was a new process in place and this, to me, was a very clear paradigm shift.

The parable of the lost son makes this clear, I think. There are those who are like the younger son, having lost everything (perhaps not physically but most certainly spiritually) and cut off from life.

There was more to the story than the younger son eating the corn cobs that were given to the pigs to eat. The very fact that this son was working with pigs made him an outcast in his own society. His contact with the pigs would have caused his family, his friends, and all in society who knew him to shun him. He couldn’t get anything else to eat because society had cast him aside and wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

But there are many today who are like the older son, the one who stayed home and dutifully did all that was asked of him. They get angry when they don’t get the same banquet that the younger brother got.

But those who react like the older brother don’t get the point. Doing everything by the book doesn’t mean that you get God’s Grace. If you only see Jesus Christ with your mind, you might miss Him. You have to see Him as much with your heart as you do your mind.

And here Paul’s words ring true. Our world is a different world when it is viewed in the light of Christ. It is what is inside our hearts that counts, not what is on the outside.

The Pharisees and authorities saw Jesus eating with sinners but they did not see what was happening to them. What did they discuss with Jesus? What questions did they ask Him? Our Scripture reading tells us that they listened intently; I am sure that Jesus, as a Master Teacher, listened to their cares and concerns as well.

He spoke then and He speaks today of a Hope and a Promise. But it was a Hope and a Promise that could only come when one changed their life.

I sometimes think that the greatest challenge we face today is not the world outside the church walls but what goes on inside. There are so many people who live a life like that of the older brother or the Pharisees. But there are many who live the life of the younger brother. When you think of it, neither life is really worth the living.

There is a new life in Christ. The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the end of the manna that feed the Israelites throughout the Exodus. But now the manna no longer comes and the people must work for their food. We see so many people who expect God to give them everything they have (and it does not matter whether one takes on the role of the older brother or the role of the younger brother) and that is all that they do. If we have truly come to Christ, we must do Christ’s work.

Borrowing an idea expressed by John Meunier, “if the people are faithful, God will see them through the struggle, but they must exert themselves and they must show their faithfulness.” (from “Reading Joshua 5: 9 – 12”)

Repentance is the one true paradigm shift because one is to give up all of the old ways and take on the new life in Christ.

The call to repentance is not for one group of people but for all people. And one group cannot say to another, “you must repent but we don’t have to.” The contradiction of that statement should be self-evident.

And now I return to John Newton and the storm that caused him to change his life. Perhaps I should have entitled this message “The Storms in Your Life”, as I did once before. But there is a time when you will have to make a decision. For some it is a decision to come to Christ; for others who have come to Christ, it is a decision to now go out and live for Christ, to show others what Christ can do.

No one can make that decision for you; it is one you must make for yourself. The Gospel message is a prophetic message and it is a radical message; it is about who has the power in your life. When do not have to commit your life to Christ but then who has the power? There are forces in place that will enslave and destroy you. But a commitment to Christ breaks those bonds of enslavement and destruction and frees you.

The decision one has to make is very clear; are you prepared to make it?

Coming Home

I am preaching at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area this coming Sunday.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.


I have written and spoken before about growing up as an Air Force brat and of moving from place to place each year. For some, this was traumatic because you were never in a place long enough to make many friends and the ones that you did make were like you, well aware that their father would be transferred to another Air Force base in a year or so and the process would have to start all over again.

But it was an experience that I wouldn’t have traded for all the tea in china. It gave me a view of the world and the people of this world that not too many people have or get. We spend most of our lives in one place and we see the world from that particular point of view. There is nothing wrong with that, provided you are willing to look or think in other ways. Part of the reason that we have problems in this world, I believe, comes from our unwillingness to see the world as others see it or to envision other views. We are unwilling to leave the comfort of our home and see what is “out there.’

This week isn’t about seeing the world from a different view; it is about our view of this place that we call home. While I will always say that I gained from moving around this country each year while growing up, I have to admit that for many years I didn’t have a place that I could call home. if you were to ask me where I am from, I would reply that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, because that is where I graduated from high school and where my mother lives. But I could and have said that I have roots in Missouri and North Carolina but neither qualifies as home.

But the place that one calls home is more than just a building; it is the place where one feels secure and safe. The significance of the Old Testament reading for today is that Exodus is now over and the people of Israel are now home. What they eat each day will no longer be the manna from heaven but the food that they grow and prepare. For the Israelites, life took on a different meaning that day some three thousand years ago. No longer would they wander in the desert, each day hoping to find security and peace. Now, their activities would focus on building their new home and putting down roots as a people and a nation.

This generation of Israelites knew very little about the time before the Exodus and little of the time before their ancestors had left this same land and journeyed to Egypt. It was all in the stories that were told and the annual celebrations and feasts that were celebrated. But there were no roots for the people. To build in the Promised Land, to harvest crops and raise animals and their families was a new and different life. It was not to begin over but to begin.

For the prodigal one, it is a little different. He does have roots; he does have a life in place but it is a life that perhaps has little promise and no opportunity. As the second son, he was not going to get the land that his father owns; he was not going to get the prestige that comes with the land and the possessions. If he was to make an impact on the world, he will have to leave his home and go out on his own.

I won’t say that this youngest son was wrong in asking for his inheritance when he did. It was his right, but like all rights, it came with the responsibilities. And as we know for so many hearing and telling this story so many times, the youngest son abrogated his responsibilities. He wasted what he had been given and found himself far from home without a future.

I cannot help but think of how the relevance of that moment, when the youngest son found himself far from home, penniless, and without status in life, applies to each one of us. Oh, I know that each one of us can say that our lives are better than that but the way things have been these past months, can we truly say that we aren’t one step away from being in the same place as the youngest son?

The truth is that many of us are only one step away though it isn’t because we have been like the prodigal son. To some extent, we have been like the older brother. We have been careful; we have played by the rules.

But there are many who haven’t and now they expect to recover from their prodigal ways by having someone pay for their mistakes. But, by the same token, I see far too many people who have the attitude of the older son. They see the riches of this planet as theirs to keep and do whatever they so desire with it. They seem to have the law on their side and they use the law, though in ways that it was not meant to be used.

When we hear about the way banks and financial institutions played with the financial market for their own gain, we wonder how they were able get away with it. For the most part, what they did was perfectly legal. And in a time and in a society where ethics take a back seat when it comes to how we do things, the morality of playing with other people’s money and risking their lives and future doesn’t enter into the equation.

The debt of this country has come just as much from the arrogance of some as it has from the slovenly habits of others. We see many who protest the government spending while at the same time putting their hands out for government funds. It was interesting to see how many people were protesting against government healthcare but yet who were received such funds. We see the icecaps melting, not just in the Arctic Ocean but around the world but we hear so many people say that we, the people, are not messing with the climate of this planet. We keep hearing people say that we have plenty of oil left on this planet if we would just drill for it.

The numbers don’t add up. We hear that the recession is over but the number of people unemployed doesn’t seem to go down. The lines at the food closets seem to be getting bigger; the number of people without healthcare keeps increasing. And we hear the older son complaining to the father that the youngest son shouldn’t be welcomed home; that it was his fault that he wasted his money and inheritance, he doesn’t deserve anything or any help.

Yes, there are some, too many perhaps, who are like the youngest son. When we examine the nature of the problems of today, we see a pattern of wanting the future now, of spending what we have now or don’t have a right to spend and leaving little for the future.

Too many people focus on the prodigal son, the one who grabbed what he could and left home and now is left with nothing. But there are a number of people out there who didn’t have anything to begin with, who work for a minimum wage and barely get by, hoping that they won’t get sick because they don’t have health insurance. There are too many people like that today. And there really isn’t a reason that it should be that way.

There are too many people in this world who are like the oldest son, unwilling to share in their inheritance. I will not argue that each individual has a right to an inheritance but it bothers me when you see individuals who have more money and more things that anyone person can ever enjoy and then hear these people say that they have a right to more. How much is enough? When does accumulating wealth just for the sake of having more become nothing more than simple greed?

The older brother doesn’t want to share; the older brother thinks that to spend any money on his stupid and foolish younger brother is wasteful and frivolous. He gave up his life; let him live with the consequences.

It bothers me that there are people out there who still maintain the same attitude that seemed to exist two thousand years ago, that poverty and sickness are the signs of a sinful life and those who are poor and homeless and sick deserve what they get.

That, in my opinion, was the attitude of the older brother and it is the attitude of too many people today. And any attempt to change the world, to bring equality to this world is met with the strongest resistance but no solution. It is as though there is to be no change in the dealings of the world. The rich will get what they consider theirs and the poor will get nothing and that is the way it will be.

And this is a conflict that will not be easily resolved by someone setting a great big banquet with the fatted calf killed or someone else buying the finest clothes.

But hear the words of Paul again, of how the old way of living is gone and there is a new way to live in Christ. Hear Paul’s words of how we should not judge a person by what is on the outside and what can be so deceiving but rather let us look inside them.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians written two thousand years ago still ring true, perhaps even more so today. There is a vision of Christ in this world today that runs counter to the words and actions of the Gospel; perhaps it is time that we cast aside that vision and the words of those who proclaim a world in which Christ is the servant and whose job is to give to those who have and want more.

It is time, whether we are the younger brother or the older brother, to come home, to come back to God. We have been wandering in a wilderness of our making for far too long and now we must come home. Like the prodigal son who wasted his life, we must seek forgiveness from Our Father. And like the older son whose life was locked in the prison of selfish desires, we can gain our freedom by seeking the same forgiveness. Just as the power of grace will welcome home the prodigal son, so too will it see the older brother free.

We are almost finished with this Lenten journey. We have been wandering in the wilderness for far too long. It is time to come home, to the welcoming arms of Our Father.

To Return Again

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 25 March 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32.


I want to thank my brother for sending me the following notes about the transition from college life to the "real world". Of course, when he sent them to me, he wasn’t aware that I was thinking about using them; in fact, neither was I.

You know that you are no longer in college when:

  1. Your salary is less than your tuition.
  2. "Extended childhood" only really pertained to your salary, which is a little less than your allowance used to be.
  3. Your potted plants stay alive.
  4. You have to file your own taxes.
  5. You have to pay your own credit card bill.
  6. Mac & Cheese no longer counts as a well-balanced meal.
  7. You haven’t seen a soap opera in over a year.
  8. 8:00 AM is not early.
  9. You hear your favorite song on the elevator at work.
  10. You carry an umbrella.
  11. You start watching the weather channel.
  12. Jeans & baseball caps aren’t staples in your wardrobe.
  13. The only times you see your jeans and T-shirts is Friday through Sunday.
  14. You go from 130 days of vacation time to 7.
  15. You stop confusing 401K plan with 10K run.
  16. Your car insurance goes down.
  17. You refer to college students as kids.
  18. You’re on the computer more than you are on the telephone.
  19. You find that brief cases are more acceptable than the once staple backpack.
  20. The friends you’re making now just don’t seem to measure up.

Remember those first heady days when you were on your own, no longer living at home or in a situation where some sergeant was telling you what time to get up? Remember when you found out just how "free" your life would be now that you were independent? There are always times in our lives when we really want to be independent. That was the case when the youngest son in the Gospel reading for today. The time had come when he sought to be independent, to go out on his own and lead his own life, rather than working for his father and, undoubtedly, his older brother.

There is a natural progression in life from dependence on others to independence and onto interdependence. Newborn babies are very dependent on others for their survival; children and youth need a nurturing environment in which to develop and mature; adults who are sick or infirm depend on others for their care and support. There is nothing inherently wrong with being dependent on others in the appropriate circumstances. When the Israelites complained to Moses about starving in the wilderness in Exodus 16, they were recognizing their almost total dependence upon God to provide for them as they left Egypt. We as Christians must also recognize our appropriate dependence upon others and God.

But against that background of a time and a place for dependence is the natural desire to seek independence. The Israelites wished to "cut the apron strings"; one way to see the story of the prodigal son is his desire to be "his own person." But the transition from dependence to independence can be difficult — as we can recall for our own lives and as the parents of young adults or teenagers.

As the Israelites strained to find their own identity and established a certain degree of independence, there grew a tension between their reliance on their own devices and a continuing on-going reliance on God. We see this struggle in the early biblical narratives. This was often a struggle which led the Israelites and which leads us away from a vital relationship with God. Time and time again, we read in the Bible the tragic consequences of a people whose search for independence leaves God behind.

The prodigal son had sought his independence from his father. But he quickly found that the joy of life independent faded and that he was forced to do things simply to survive. Jesus saw the inevitable course of sin in our lives and projected it into the sad conclusion of the prodigal son’s adventure: an inner disintegration, outer misery, and total reunion.

But God never intended for us to be either totally dependent or totally independent. And he certainly never intended for us to be left alone, lost in the world. He wanted us to discover our interdependence. Our identity is found we recognize our connection with and to God. This shows both our dependence and independence. This is shown in Joshua 3 where the Israelites prepared to enter into the Promised Land. It is shown in Joshua 5: 1 – 8 where they reasserted their religious and national identity. In Joshua 5: 9 God announces the rolling "away from you the disgrace of Egypt." The Passover celebration (verses 10 – 11) recalls the Source of their interdependence. Eating the produce of the land (in verse 12) is symbolic of their ability to provide for essential needs while depending upon God for the conditions that make the crops grow. It is at this point that the manna from heaven, the source of energy throughout the Exodus, stops. This was a sign to the Israelites that they had achieved independence.

The interdependence of God and the Israelites is illustrated in the next section of Joshua with the Battle of Jericho. Victory requires the cooperation of the Israelites and their God. This is probably one of the reasons that Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son.

In verses 1 – 3 of the Gospel reading for today we see the tragedy of the cold people of God, of those who had forgotten their relationship with God and with their neighbors. The description of the older brother shows a picture of how Jesus feels about church people who claim to know God and want to be like him; yet, turn away from the poor and the outcast, the misfits who come from the darkness of sin into the circle of fellowship and love of the church.

Look further at the picture of this older brother in verse 28 when his younger brother has returned and the rejoicing has begun. The elder brother hears the merrymaking while still hard at work in the field. Upon hearing of the "good" news of his brother’s return, he gets angry and refused to go in and join in the celebration. Even after his father came out and asked him to join, he refused choosing to sulk in the fields.

How unattractive this older brother seems to be, so filled with hate and resentment. Wouldn’t you hate to be cooped up all day with in a bass boat or at work with him. It may have been that his younger brother desired to leave home.

Yes, he was the dutiful son, doing what was asked of him. But it was always in terms of what he wanted and what he was going to get. He could not see his duty had to be for others first, to help others find Christ and salvation.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians "We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view." When we recognize that, in Christ, God suffered and died for all people, we cannot look at anyone in a demeaning way. We cannot devalue any person for any reason. We cannot see people as objects to be used or as annoyances to be eliminated. Because of the Cross and the resurrection, we come to see the high value God places on all of us. We are given God’s point of view. When we see God’s point of view, we see that no one is disposable. Just like the prodigal son, all are welcome in God’s house.

Lent is a time of renewal. As we get closer and closer to Easter and the resurrection, we are asked to examine our relationship with God. We are asked to examine our relationship with others. If we return again to God’s house, we will experience, as Paul wrote, a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!"

Which Side Are You On? (2004)

This was a sermon that I gave for the 4th Sunday of Lent (21 March 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York).  The Scriptures were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32.  (Edited 17 March 2010)


There is an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?".

Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, there was no middle ground; you were either a union man or you worked for the coal company.

We are a society that likes clearly defined concepts. We chafe and hesitate when concepts we have spent a life believing in are pushed beyond our capabilities to understand. We like the world in black and white, not shades of gray. But the only time life has such clarity and definition is when we are dealing with a two-year old. Then it is clearly "yes, you may" or "no, don’t do that!"

But our choices are not that simple. There is today a common perception that if you are a Christian you are a political conservative. And if you are a political liberal, you cannot be a Christian. A recent study suggested that individuals who went to church more than twice a week were likely to have voted for George Bush while those individuals who never went to church were likely to have voted for Al Gore.

But as Anna Quindlen, a columnist for Newsweek, stated in a recent column (March 8, 2004), there is a wide range of individuals in the middle of the church attendance spectrum. And because there is, you cannot readily determine a person’s voting pattern from their church attendance. And I am bothered by this assumption that Christians are primarily conservative and liberals are not Christian.

True, the view many people see today is a conservative one but that is because the many liberal Christians have either given up the fight or don’t care. But I grew up at a time when the Bible was used to justify segregation. I went to school when the Bible was used to justify killing in the name of your country.

And today, when people see Christian churches, they see a conservative approach to religion. It is an approach that is exclusive and judgmental. It is an approach that tries to use the Bible, even when there is no real justification, to justifying second class status to women and others.

It is an approach that is rigid and unyielding, unable to adapt to new ideas. And I find that, at least in the scientific community, a hesitancy to accept those with a Christian viewpoint for fear that they will condemn science as anti-religion.

And why shouldn’t people think that way? Did not the Catholic Church of 16th century burn Copernicus and imprison Galileo for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the solar system? Never mind that no one has ever come up with the answer to "why" the universe was created. Or that we are still struggling with "how" the universe was created, we find conservatives today stifling scientific imagination because they are unwilling to accept physical evidence concerning the age of the earth. Our ability to teach in this country is severely hampered because conservative Christians bully and intimidate textbook publishers to publish questionable and invalid approaches. Faith and science are not the same and those who think they are should reexamine their own thinking. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."

And even today, in areas where you would think that Christian ethics should be paramount in one’s daily living, we find conservative Christians holding back, preventing an implementation of the true meaning of the Gospel. Last November (actually, it was in August; see "Do As I Say?  Or, Do As I Do?" – note added 28 May 2008), I spoke about the effort in Alabama to seek true tax reform, reform based in part on an examination of the Old and New Testament, and Judeo-Christian ethics.

The state of Alabama’s tax system has been identified repeatedly as one which is unfair. Though the income tax is one of the lowest in the country and the property tax is as well, there is a tax on just about everything else. The sales tax in Alabama is the highest in the nation and does not exempt even the most basic necessities such as food. Put together, taxes in Alabama put an unfair burden on the lowest income groups and allow the richest in the state to avoid paying any taxes at all. People who own 71 percent of the property pay less than 2 percent of the property tax in the state of Alabama. And if you are paying for schools or healthcare from your property tax revenue, where is the money coming from?

But one of the leading opponents of this reform was the Christian Coalition of Alabama. They argued that there were no problems with Alabama’s tax system; that the lowest income families weren’t overtaxed. They also argued that it wasn’t the responsibility of the state but rather the church to take care of the poor (an interesting argument for a Christian group to make). And when these arguments failed, they turned to attacking the creator of the tax reform plan. It is interesting that a group calling itself Christian would stoop to mud slinging.

Unfortunately for the people of Alabama, the campaign for tax reform failed. Hopefully it is only a temporary failure and the efforts to create a just tax code, preferably one based on Judeo-Christian ethics, will ultimately succeed. There are hopes to take the issue of tax reform from the local and state level to the Federal level (for it has been shown that any tax cuts on the Federal level invariably lead to tax increases at the state and local levels). But as Dr. Hamill pointed out, the special interests at the Federal level that would oppose tax reform are meaner, greedier, and better funded than were her opponents in Alabama. (adapted from an interview with Dr. Susan Pace Hamill in the April issue of Sojourners.)

I became aware of Christ’s presence in my life during a time of great upheaval in this country. It was a time when we were fighting for equality in society. And it was the church that was leading the fight. And then there was Viet Nam. It could be that there are justifiable wars. But a truly justifiable war is hard to define and as I struggled with my opposition to the war, I struggled with what my faith was requiring of me. My own opposition wasn’t so much against the war (how could I, the son of a career Air Force officer and the grandson of a career Army officer be against the military) as I was against the draft. I felt then and still do today that we must be free to choose, to act, and to bear the responsibilities for our own actions. (based in part on Letters From a C. O. In Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer) I felt that the draft took away that choice. And it was quickly apparent that the draft was unfair. There are numerous examples of individuals who literally bought their way out of serving, some by using political and family connections to get into the National Guard. Oh, they served their country but on their terms. One of those people was a roommate of mine in college, who when faced with specter of failing in college and being drafted, got his family to get him into the Missouri National Guard. It became apparent that as the war dragged on, the inequities of the draft mirrored the inequities of society.

I cannot say exactly how it happened but it is most likely that as I looked at my options concerning the draft and service to my country, I began to understand exactly what my faith was. I know that back then I saw faith in terms of actions first. If I did the right things, then I was guaranteed a place in heaven. But the actions the Gospel encourages us to take, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and comfort the poor and needy are actions driven by your faith. It was the inaction of the church that drove Wesley to seek a new way of fulfilling the Gospel.

It is a basic tenet of Methodism that, having come to Christ yourself, you must then work towards the perfection of Christ. It is a task that by definition can never be reached but one that must be undertaken. It is not the enactment of the Gospels in one’s life that gets you into heaven but it is a requirement of faith that you seek to enact the Gospel message in your life. And if the enactment of the Gospel or if caring about righteousness and justice makes me a liberal, then I am proud that I turned out that way.

But before anyone should think that I am just grumbling about conservatives, let me point out that I think those who are liberal have failed. The struggles for equality were lead by the liberals of the church, following in Jesus’ footsteps and showing that all were welcome in the kingdom. But once the legislation to insure equality was passed, the liberals stopped. The battle may have been won but the war was far from over.

The Old Testament passage is an interesting one. The Israelites have finally reached the Promised Land and have settled down, no longer wandering through the desert. And because they have settled down, the manna from heaven that had provided them their daily bread ceased. Now they would live off what the land that they had been given produced. I think to understand this passage you have to read the next one.

In the next passage, the Israelites began the series of military operations that insure that they will occupy the land. But just before the battles begin, Joshua (now the head of the people, replacing Moses) encounters a man dressed for battle. Joshua asked this man, "Are you for us, or for our enemies?" (Joshua 5: 13) The man (assumed by some writers to be God), answers "Neither." (Joshua 5: 14) In this brief encounter, we are told that God is not on the side of the Israelites but that the Israelites must fight God’s battles.

We cannot expect the manna from heaven or products of the Promised Land if our focus is on what is good for either you or I; God expects us to continue working for him long after we find Him. When the Israelites quit working for God, trouble invariably followed. From the Book of Judges to the end of the Old Testament, there are countless passages telling of the calamities that befell Israel when it failed to follow God.

The Gospel reading for today starts off with the Pharisees complaining that Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors. What self-respecting rabbi would ever do that? I see many churches today, or perhaps it would be better to say the people of the churches today, acting just like the Pharisees did back then. And when we welcome a sinner back into the fold, they are like the oldest son, sulking in the corner because the best wasn’t given to them.

The Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the tradition of the Law and they expected rewards for keeping the Law pure and safe. But in keeping the Law pure and safe, they ignored the many people in society who were suffering. Many times Jesus said that he was not the keeper of the Law but rather it’s fulfillment. Every action that He took was predicated on the notion that the riches of God’s kingdom were for all and not just a select few. The celebration of the kingdom was for all, even the lowest sinner, if they repented of their sins and sought God.

Following God isn’t really a conservative or liberal thing. When Jesus selected his disciples, he selected Matthew, the tax collector. Those who were tax collectors in Israel were considered traitors to their people and among the outcasts of society. But Jesus asked him to follow Him. And then Jesus chose Simon the Zealot. (Matthew 10: 4) To describe someone as a zealot might have been a description of their religious fervor; but it also could have meant that they were a part of the Jewish revolutionary group that was violently opposed to Roman rule in Palestine. Such a person would not have been found in the same room as someone like Matthew who worked for the Roman state. Yet Jesus chose these two men, extremes of the politically and religiously polarized society of the day. (From a letter to the editor in the April 2004 issue of Sojourners.) Christ saw that there were no divisions.

When you follow God you become a new person. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Everything old has passed away and we are surrounded by new things." (2 Corinthians 5: 17 ) Paul wrote that in Christ there was no east or west, no Jew or Gentile. In Christ, there was no division, so there is no reason to choose sides.

So the only question would be, "Where are you this moment in Lent when it comes to God?" On that Friday that we have come to call Good, Jesus was nailed to a cross between two men. The man on the left ridiculed Jesus, calling for him to save Himself and echoing the sarcasm of those whom nailed Jesus to the cross. But the other man knew and said that Jesus had done no wrong. And in his own pain and suffering, this second criminal asked to Jesus to remember him in paradise.

In the coming days, there will be many challenges. Challenges to the church and denomination, challenges to Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. Which side will you be on? Will you be on the side that sees no hope in Christ? Or will you be on the side of Christ, working for the fulfillment of the Gospel? The song’s chorus is "Which side are you on?"

Which Brother Are You?

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Lent
A discussion last week led me to wonder what happened to the drive or the emphasis that lead us through the 60’s. It was during that time that we worked to remove inequality in various forms from our society. It was also a time when we sought to move beyond the boundaries of this world with our exploration of space and the oceans. It was also during this time that we became aware of what being a steward of this earth really meant.

Yet, as the decades progressed, the forces of inequality have again surfaced as if they never really left. We now longer seek excellence in the things that we do; rather, we accept mediocrity as the best that is possible and no longer push the boundaries of the envelope. Given a choice between taking care of this small blue planet that we call home and using up the resources without thought, we consume all that we have and seek more. Some how, we have allowed the promise of the 60’s and the early 70’s to disappear into a sea of self-interest, self-indulgence and self-promotion.

Unfortunately this transformation of society, from one where we cared about others to one of self-centeredness, has transformed the church. It dominates and shapes the character of religion today. No longer do we ask how we can serve Jesus but rather we demand that Jesus serve us. The public image of Christianity today is one where people are told that Jesus will make them happier, more self-satisfied, better adjusted, and more prosperous. Religion is presented as a way of uncovering our human potential, our potential for personal, social, and business success. No longer are we brought into Jesus’ life but rather we bring Jesus into our lives. (1)

As we read the story of the prodigal son, the Gospel reading for today (2), we suddenly realize that we have turned into the older brother. As a society, as a culture, we have become more concerned with our own personal needs and the accumulation of our personal wealth. We no longer care about our lost brothers or sisters. We assume that anyone whose life is like that of the younger son must be so consumed with sin that there is no hope for them. So we give them none.

But in doing this, we forget what the mission of the Christian church is. The historical mission of the church has always been the sign of new life given in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Its primary task has been to witness to the purpose of Christ in the world. But the church has failed in this task, in part because it no longer focuses on the presence of the Holy Spirit and in part because it tries to be a part of the community instead of being a new community.

There are some today who try to make the present community a community of Christ. They do so in ways that are reminiscent of the religious community of Jesus’ time. But to seek such a community is to stifle the creativity found in Christ. To seek such a community is to make life static and meaningless and all that will do is remove the future. And if you make life static and you remove creativity from life, then you remove the future. And if you remove the future, then you create a community that offers little hope or promise to those on the margin of society. (3)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that our world in Christ is a new world, one not viewed from our viewpoint but rather from the viewpoint of Christ. (4) As long as we view Christ from our viewpoint of the world, then we can never see the opportunity and the possibilities that are found for all in Christ. When we encounter Christ, we find the true human existence that we lack.

The theme of the forty days of Lent will always be a call for repentance. It is a call to change the direction and nature of one’s life, to stop living a life found in this world and begin living a life found in Christ. When the Israelites celebrated the first Passover in the Promised Land (5), the manna from heaven that had nourished them through the days and months of the Exodus stopped. This was not a sign that God’s protection and support had ended and they were responsible for their own lives. Rather, it was a sign that they were in a new world, a world promised to them years before in the original covenant.

As we see the end of Lent, we prepare for the re-establishment of the covenant, the promise between each one of us and God. We have been in the wilderness, lost and without hope. We have forgotten that we are God’s children and we have begun to see all that is around us as ours and ours alone. We have become the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Yet, our Heavenly Father has not forgotten us or where we are. If we stop, pause, and think as did the younger brother, we know that it is not too late to make the change that will brings us back to God. So, the question today must be “Which brother are you?”
(1) Adapted from Jim Wallis’ A Call to Conversion
(2) Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b – 32
(3) Adapted from Colin Williams’ Faith in a Secular Age
(4) 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21
(5) Joshua 5: 9 – 12