“Thoughts On Good Shepherd Sunday”

Some random thoughts on this the 4th Sunday of Easter, often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”.

I happened to, because of the way the day works, listen to two different messages that focused on today’s lectionary readings. In both cases, the speaker spoke of encountering a herd of sheep while traveling in Ireland.

In the Gospel reading for this morning, we hear Jesus say that all the sheep know His voice (echoing words from Isaiah where we are called by name). Now, there are some who are going to feel that God has somehow forgotten them, that they call out and no one answers.

For them, God does not exist. But is it that God doesn’t answer or that we don’t hear the answer? Could it be that we are so wrapped up in troubles that it creates a blanket of noise that keeps us from hearing the quiet, almost inaudible voice of God saying that He loves us and that He will never abandon us?

Both speakers that I listened to also spoke of the need to envision the Gospel reading, of Christ calling us by name, as something that we needed to do as a community. This call for a community offers a way to remove the noise that prevents us from hearing God and continuing God’s work.

Two closing thoughts – Back in 1995, when I was living in Pittsburg, Kansas, there was a cemetery across from my apartment complex. Within its boundaries were graves that may or may not have been the graves of family relatives. The sad part is that because of our family history, or rather the lack of records for the family history, we will never really know if there is a link between our present family and the family there.

I also saw several graves in this cemetery with lambs atop the grave stone. Such markers tell us that a child was buried there and it tells, in one way, the story of a community that struggle to make a go of it in southeastern Kansas. That particular part of Kansas used to be a mining area and families from the Balkans came to build a new life in the soil of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. The lambs tell us it was not an easy struggle to build that new community.

Finally, if one speaks of the Good Shepherd, one needs to remember the song that Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, and Nash sung back in the late ’60s – “Good Shepherd”. This song has its origins in the Gospel of John 21: 1 – 19 and was originally written by a Methodist minister in the 1840’s (see my notes on this song in “A Rock and Roll Revival”).

We have been called by the Good Shepherd and we have been asked to help others find the Good Shepherd.

Passing the Torch

I preached at Diamond Hill UMC in Cos Cob, CT, this morning. Their services are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 4: 5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, and John 10: 11 – 18.

On January 20, 1960, John Kennedy stood before the American people as the new American President and proclaimed that a torch had been passed to a new generation, my parent’s generation, your generation. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy opened by saying,

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html)

I cannot help but think that his words were a rebuttal to his critics who said that he was too young to be President. But his address was more than simply a rebuke of his critics or a comment on how things had been and possibly could be; it was also a vision of the future for the next generation, my generation and perhaps your generation as well. It spoke of challenges that we as a country and a society faced.

It was a vision that equality was more than a concept envisioned during the American Revolution but a reality of life, time, place, and society. It was a vision that spoke of going beyond the boundaries of time and place, of going beyond the boundaries of the earth and reaching far out into space. It was the challenge to get things done.

It was, in some sense, a good time. The country seemed alive and intelligence and aptitude were demanded by all. The President spoke in complete sentences (in part because the sound bite hadn’t been invented yet) and he could references things that people understood.

Three years before, in 1957, the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite. This launch created within the American public a view that there was a crisis in science and mathematics; that American children were under- or ill-equipped to deal with the vast Soviet menace that now threaten our skies from outer space. If nothing else, in what became known as the Space Race, the United States was a distant second in a two-country race to the Soviet Union.

Many who grew up during that era will recall that the beginnings of the U. S. space program were often marked by failure and disappointment. All we knew is that the Soviet Union launched satellite after satellite while our missiles and rockets seem to blow up on the launching pad every time we tried to launch one.

In retrospect, the crisis was a bit overstated. We were trying to develop a new technology while the Soviets used essentially brute force to launch their rockets. And while our failures were open and visible to the entire world, the veil of secrecy that the Soviet Union hid behind prevented us from knowing how many failures they had experienced.

But we rushed and stumbled into the space race and we created a myriad of science and mathematics programs that would help my generation become proficient scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. And it would, at least in the chemistry courses that were developed then, teach us how to think. The focus of these new science courses would not be the memorization of countless facts and figures but on methodologies that would enable us to explore and find the facts. It was a methodology that required going into the laboratory and actually do science, not simply reading a textbook and writing down what the instructor wrote on the blackboard. It meant analyzing information rather than simply regurgitating back on the test.

But over the years, teaching science has reverted back to the old ways of memorizing and regurgitation, though now instead of facts and figures, we memorize concepts and ideas. Our students only know that the important stuff to know is that which will be on the test and anything else is superfluous. If the answer to the question is not in the back of the book, it is not an important question to know and should not appear on the test. And teachers know that they should never ask questions that hasn’t been discussed in class or requires analysis and/or critical thinking.

Today, we face a new crisis. But there are no Soviet satellites beeping away while orbiting the earth every 90 minutes in this crisis. No, it is a crisis of complacency and expectation that permeates both the secular and sectarian aspects of society.

It is a society in which questioning is not encouraged because questioning only leads to change and change is not welcomed. We live in a world where what we did yesterday worked so that is what we will do today and what we will do tomorrow. And we have come to expect that there will be someone available to continue doing tomorrow what we do today.

It is, in part, a spiritual crisis. The evil that seems to be ever present in this world, the crime, the hatred, the violence, the war all seem to say that there is no God and if there is a God, why does it seem like he has turned away. We hear cynics tell us that religion has outlived its usefulness and that there is no role or place for the church in today’s society. In fact, when we turn to the church for such answers, it often seems as if the church is part of the cause and not part of the solution.

And so, when we look at so many churches today, we see physical emptiness. We hear of churches closing and wonder which church will be next. The demographics tell us that many churches are getting older and the youth and the young are walking away from the church, seeking their spiritual answers somewhere else.

Some will say that this all occurred because we no longer have a moral society. Their solution is to create a society with a series of purity laws, much in the vein of the laws of the Old Testament, that would dictate who could come into church and who could not. But it was these purity laws, laws that said women, children, the maimed, the lame, and the blind could not enter the temple that Jesus worked against.

It was the healing of someone on the Sabbath that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities; it was the situation that was in the first reading today that brought Peter and John before the religious authorities.

What we fail to realize today, perhaps because we only want the facts and care not to analyze what we read, is that every time Jesus healed someone or dealt with someone considered ritually unclean, He became unclean. If we were to impose those same set of purity laws today, would we allow Jesus to come into our church?

When we hear the words of the John the Evangelist telling us that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, we have to understand how revolutionary and world changing this statement was. In Jesus’ time the general populace considered shepherds to be generally untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. This was because they were in daily contact with the carcasses of animals and came into contact with all sorts of unclean animals.

The level of cleanliness that we are talking about in this case goes beyond the cleanliness that we are dealing with right now. The division between clean and unclean was a fundamental part of Jewish life. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean, as well as morally clean. And when you became unclean, you had to wash yourself until the religious authorities deemed you clean again. It was a process that we have encountered time and time again in the Gospel readings. (Adapted from http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/2007/12/shepherds-of-sheep-and-lamb-advent.html)

In some circles today is commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel reading and use of the 23rd Psalm as the psalter. (See notes about this at http://bobherring2009.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/good-shepherd-sunday-thoughts.)

While shepherds held an esteemed status in the time of David, it was a status that was quickly lost in the time between David and Jesus. As the people settled into Palestine and acquired more farmland, pasturing and the shepherd lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation for the labor class.

And while shepherds were the symbol of judgment and social desolation in the days of the Prophets, shepherds in the days of Jesus were despised and mistrusted. People were told not to buy wool, milk, or a baby goat from a shepherd because it was most likely stolen. Legal documents show that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights, could not hold judicial office, or be admitted to courts as witnesses. And for someone who grew up in the segregated south, that sounds all too familiar.

In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, rabbis would ask with amazement how, in light of David’s words of Psalm 23, God could be called the shepherd of His people. (Adapted from http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/holidays/Shepherd_s_Status.shtml)

It must have been that way when Jesus told the crowds “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” These were words that did not fit the image of a shepherd in that society. They were words that challenged the people to think in a new and different way; they were words that suggested a new order to life.

In the same way, Jesus proclaimed a new life and a new way. To a people who saw a life of rules and regulation as the only way to Heaven, Jesus offered an alternative. He rejected ceremonial and external observances of religion to stress that religion was an inward matter of the heart, of a direct encounter with the Father through Jesus Himself.

What does it say about us then when we say that so-and-so cannot come into our church because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even economic status? Are we not all created in God’s image? Are we not somehow saying that such persons are not children of God? How then can we even think to say that any person is to be denied access to the God because they do not meet society’s image of what is right and righteous?

It must bother those who seek the imposition of Old Testament purity laws that Jesus would speak of others outside the fold who He was going to bring in.

Of course, there are those who would really like to know who those missing sheep that were mentioned in the Gospel reading for today are? The more people that can be brought in, the better things will be. In this way, they can show others the numbers that say theirs is a vital and active church. I have no desire to get into a numbers game, even if my minor was in statistics.

The church is in the people business and, to be exact, in the saving of souls. It is not about how many people are there but how many souls are saved and I have no clue or idea how that will ever be measured. To be honest, the only way that anyone is going to know how successful, how vital their church was will happen long after they are dead and buried and they are standing outside the gates of Heaven, hoping to be among the sheep and not the goats (referring to closing verses of Matthew 25).

But we live in a world driven by the bottom line so we create other measures of vitality. We look at the size of the church, its average attendance and membership.

It looks nice when you have say 1000 members in a church but I also know that programs that work for mega-churches will not necessarily work for churches with, say, only 100 members. So I am not interested in the size of the church.

It is important to know how many new members a church receives but it says something about the church. Notice, I said new members, because members received by transfer mean another church lost someone.

The number of individuals baptized or confirmed is an important number to know. But how many of these individuals continue in the church after they were baptized or confirmed? How many couples have been married in the church with great ceremony but never step foot inside the sanctuary again? I remember an situation several years ago where a mother proudly announced that her son was going to be married in the church and coming home that night and getting an e-mail from the son telling me that he was leaving the church.

I am not saying that we should not baptize infants, children, or adults. But we do need to remember that when that happens, we, the congregation, join in the vow to raise the child in Christ. If they do not come to church, we cannot say that it is their entire fault.

And we still live in a world where we think that our children will be members of the church where they were confirmed. But children leave the home and go away, to school and to work, so to expect them to be members of the same church as their parents is a little presumptuous on our part.

And a church that focuses totally on the bottom line, the numbers and the dollars, cannot see that it is losing people who seek answers to the questions that the church is supposed

I have heard the argument that the church has to pay its bills and I agree that the bills must be paid; it is a part of good stewardship. But when that is the church’s focus, it drives away the people who are more interested in finding out who God is and what God means.

It means that measuring the vitality, the life of the church is far harder than we think. How do you measure the heart of the church? How do you measure the care and concern that the church has for its community? What is the impact of the church on the community? Do the people of the community hear the Shepherd through the efforts of the people of the church? Or do the people of the church even know there is a community outside the church?

How does one practice real love? Answering that question will be how one determines the measure of vitality and life in a church today.

An alive and vital church would be one that reaches out beyond the walls of the sanctuary. It is one that knows what talents lie within the members of the church and finds ways to utilize those talents. What was it that Paul said? Some teach; some preach; others heal; others exhort. Some will lift up others in prayer; others will offer comfort. How are the talents of the church used for the church and for the community? Are they doing it because they want to do it or do they think that it somehow enhances their standing in the church?

Are they the hired hand mentioned in the Gospel reading for today, who does a job because it is a job? Or are they doing it because they have experienced the Love of Christ and wish to share that love with others? It is this difference that will tell others if a church is alive, vital and thriving, or simply existing in the present waiting for the final toll of the bell.

If we view our role as that of the hired hand, it is probable that we would not give our best. But we are not willing to give our best, where then, as John wrote in the letter that we read for today, where would we be?

We are faced with a crisis. But it is a crisis that can be faced, perhaps not with traditional solutions. Jesus saw life for the people outside a structure that had chosen to exclude people, not bring them in. Any solution that an individual church proposes has to 1) be related to their community, their surroundings, and their environment and 2) reflective of what Christ did and what John Wesley did. I know that it is a worn out cliché but one must occasionally think outside the box.

John Wesley saw a church dying because it would not see beyond the walls of sanctuary. How many times did people in churches throughout England in John Wesley’s time hear those same verses of the first letter from John that were read today but ignored the moment that the people left the church? How many times have people today read those words that say that we should just talk about God’s love but practice it? If I am interested in knowing if a church is alive, I am going to look for the evidence that the church has, in some way, responded to the needs, not just of its own members, but of those in the community around.

On Saturday mornings at my home church, we operate “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.” Part of the feeding ministry of my home church, we offer a breakfast to all, no matter their circumstances.

What separates this ministry from other similar ministries is that we serve the breakfast on plates and use silverware instead paper plates and plastic utensils. The food prepared is prepared fresh and while it may be bought in bulk, it is of good quality and, wherever and whenever possible, bought from local producers.

While some may say that this is a waste it is good stewardship. Using plates and silverware instead of plastic utensils and paper plates is more environmentally friendly since you are not generating bags and bags of trash that must be hauled away. And when you buy from local producers, you support the local economy.

But more importantly, if you believe that Jesus will be one of those who served at breakfast, on what would you serve Him and what would you serve Him? If we use the finest plates and utensils, the freshest food for Our Lord, what do we use for the least of these?

But too many churches today see serving the homeless, the street people, and those less fortunate in the manner that we do is a waste of resources. If they have a church feeding ministry (not a food bank), they are apt to serve lower quality food and do so in the manner of a soup kitchen. It is the attitude of the hired hand and not the child of God.

I began by noting that the torch of leadership had been passed from one generation to the next when John Kennedy was elected.

But I was thinking of another torch, the one that has been handed down from generation to generation from the very first days that Christians gathered together, sometimes openly but many times secretly.

At the beginning of the every service, we light the candles on the altar to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I began my journey to and with Christ, I was taught that as I took the light from the altar at the end of the service, I was taking it out into the world as a symbol of each one of us entering the world as Christ’s representative.

The torch of the Spirit, the presence of the Holy Spirit, has been handed to us from generations of believers before us. Our challenge today is to place Christ in our heart so that the torch can continue to glow and then to accept the Holy Spirit so that we can others to come to know Christ.

The torch has been passed; will you continue to pass it on?

The Order of Things

This Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18. 

Updated on 18 November 2017 to include reference to measurement of parallax

In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.” A corollary to this is that you cannot and should not make the facts fit the theory. Too often, I am afraid we do just that; force the facts in front of us to fit our pet theories and common concepts about life.

It would have been far easier for Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler if they had looked at the evidence that they had gathered on the motion of the planets and not tried to make it fit into their own ideas about the solar system as well as those of society, that is, the geo-centric or earth-centered solar system.

Brahe is best known in history for the detailed observations that he made of the planets and the stars prior to the invention of the telescope. His observations of a supernova in 1572 contradicted the accepted notion that the cosmos (or universe) was fixed and unchanging. His observations of the movement of a comet in 1577 showed that comets were further away from the earth than was the moon, a conclusion that also contradicted the teachings of Aristotle.

In his observations of the heavens, Brahe determined that there was no parallax for the stars. Parallax is the apparent movement of something when you look at the object with one eye open and the other shut and then change the eye which is open and the eye which is shut. As you blink your eyes, the object you are looking at appears to move; that is what is known as parallax. (see http://www.digitalsky.org.uk/lunar_parallax.html or http://spot.colorado.edu/~underwod/astr/para.html for a demonstration) Brahe showed that the stars did not exhibit such movement and this meant that either 1) the stars were very far away or 2) the earth was motionless at the center of the universe.

Like so many other instances of human thought, Brahe correctly formulated the responses to his thought but choose the wrong answer. He did not believe that the stars could be as far away from the earth as his observations suggested so he concluded that the earth was motionless and at the center of the universe. (adapted from http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/brahe.html)

Kepler took the observations that Brahe had collected and worked on the orbit of Mars. Unlike Brahe, Kepler accepted the Copernican view of the solar system that placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. But the Copernican system had the orbits of the various planets in circles, a relic of Aristotle’s ideas about the motion of planets, and the description of the motion of the observed planets (including Mars) required a manipulation of the data to fit the model.

Try as he might, he could not make the observations fit the theory of circular orbits. Ultimately, Kepler was forced to throw out the idea of circular orbits in favor of elliptical orbits and formulate the correct theory of the solar system. We know where this revelation led. In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried and convicted of heresy for his public support of the Copernican view of the solar system.

See Annual Parallax and the debate over whether the Earth moves for further information about the measurement of parallax

But even today, with our knowledge of science greater than it was some four hundred years ago, we still have difficulty with scientific concepts, as the recent outbreak of H1N1 flu would suggest. The use of the popular term “swine flu” has lead to problems for the pork industry and there are cultural implications where some may have the virus but whose beliefs require that they avoid pork and pork products. It has been demonstrated that you cannot get the H1N1 virus by eating pork but the use of the term is causing problems not related to the virus.

It is also clear that many people today would rather hold onto a mythological explanation of the world and the universe while denying the truth of observed evidence. There is nothing in this statement about the role of a Supreme Being in the creation of this world and this universe. But the efforts of many today to deny the observed truth and force the teaching of altered truths to fit mythological explanations suggests a path that can only lead to a new “Dark Ages.” I would offer as evidence that we are on that path as our responses and reactions to this latest flu outbreak demonstrate.

I do not deny the existence of God and I believe that He did in fact create the world in which we live and the solar system of which we are a small part. But as I have said many times before, God created us in His image and He gave us the ability to think. If we did not have the ability to think, it would be very difficult for us to be created in His image.

In this month’s issue of Connections, “Curiosity that led to Growth”,Julie Fuschak tells her faith story and how she has grown in the church and her understanding of what it means to believe. She indicates that

I now understand that the Bible has been written by people of faith, out of their faith experience, their world view and their culture, as they felt led by the spirit of God. With that understanding, I find God speaking to me through their faith stories. I am free to question, doubt, ponder, experience, and listen to my heart and mind for the leading of the spirit.

The world in which we live and the church of which we are part is in the midst of a struggle right now; a struggle for the hearts and minds of the faithful and those without faith struggling right now. It is a struggle between a fundamentalist version of a faith and its prophetic vision. It is a struggle between a religion that promises easy certainty and one that prompts a deeper reflection. One version attacks all those outside the circle of faith while the other seeks a dialogue that does not compromise its sacred ground. One version seeks to maintain the status quo, just as it did some two thousand years ago; the other version seeks to root out the internal hypocrisy and religious dysfunction that so dominates our church and faith today.

Too often, we are like the sheep that the shepherd watches over. Or perhaps it is the idea of sheep as meek and mild creatures that follow the shepherd unquestioning where they are going and why they are going that way. We too often accept the ideas in the Bible at face value and do not think about what it is that we read. Now, there are those who will tell you that the words in the Bible are the inerrant words of God, fixed and unchangeable.

To be sure, the words of the Bible are true and they are a fine description of what this world was like some two thousand years ago and they are a fine basis for how we are to live in this world today and in the years to come. But if we are to walk the path that Jesus, the disciples, and the early church walked then we must understand that path and the direction it leads us.

And I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to not understanding the words that I have read in the Bible. I know that I have stood in the pulpit on many occasions, most notably during Advent, and pointed out that presence of the shepherds in the manger was a statement that there was a new order in the world. I just never understood how much the order was changed by their presence.

When we hear the words of the John the Evangelist telling us that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, we have to understand how revolutionary and world changing this statement was. In Jesus’ time the general populace considered shepherds to be generally untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. This was because they were in daily contact with the carcasses of animals and came into contact with all sorts of unclean animals.

The level of cleanliness that we are talking about in this case goes beyond the cleanliness that we are dealing with right now. The division between clean and unclean was a fundamental part of Jewish life. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean, as well as morally clean. And when you became unclean, you had to wash yourself until the religious authorities deemed you clean again. It was a process that we have encountered time and time again in the Gospel readings. (Adapted from http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/2007/12/shepherds-of-sheep-and-lamb-advent.html)

And while shepherds held an esteemed status in the time of David, it was a status that was quickly lost in the time between David and Jesus. As the people settled into Palestine and acquired more farmland, pasturing and the shepherd lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews decreased, shepherding became a menial vocation for the labor class.

And while shepherds were the symbol of judgment and social desolation in the days of the Prophets, shepherds in the days of Jesus were despised and mistrusted. People were told not to buy wool, milk, or a baby goat from a shepherd because it was most likely stolen. Legal documents show that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights, could not hold judicial office, or be admitted to courts as witnesses. And for someone who grew up in the segregated south, that sounds all too familiar.

In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, rabbis would ask with amazement how, in light of David’s words of Psalm 23, God could be called the shepherd of His people. (Adapted from http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/holidays/Shepherd_s_Status.shtml)

It must have been that way when Jesus told the crowds “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” These were words that did not fit the image of a shepherd in that society. They were words that challenged the people to think in a new and different way; they were words that suggested a new order to life.

In the same way, Jesus proclaimed a new life and a new way. To a people who saw a life of rules and regulation as the only way to Heaven, Jesus offered an alternative. He rejected ceremonial and external observances of religion to stress that religion was an inward matter of the heart, of a direct encounter with the Father through Jesus Himself.

He will tell Nicodemus that one’s inner rebirth is a matter of love, not law. He will tell the Samaritan woman that worship will no longer be determined by the place one worships but by the attitude that one has when they worship. Jesus will contrast the Bread of Life with the “clean” foods on the Holiness Code. He will tell the adulteress that her life is not forfeited to the external law if she has a saving love. And Jesus will engage the Temple authorities about their conduct in maintaining the Temple as the House of God. (Adapted from “What the Gospels Meant” by Gary Wills)

The proud religionists of Christ’s day should have faded from view and into obscurity but they are still with us today. They are the ones whose actions, words, thoughts, deeds, and inability to see what the Gospel means are driving people away from the church. People are leaving the church, not because they have something better to go to or because they do not believe but because the church’s actions, words, deeds, and thoughts do not match what they see and hear and what they know and feel. Those who are leaving the church are not dumb; they have heard the Gospel, they just do not believe that it can be found in many of the churches of today.

We know that there were those in the religious and political establishment of Jesus’ day who had the same thoughts. We remember the story of Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus in the middle of the night so that society would not see him.

But he left that meeting confused about what Jesus told him about being reborn again. But we know that he must have thought about what Jesus said because, at Jesus’ trial, he suggested to the other members of the Sanhedrin that they should perhaps hear what Jesus had to say before condemning him. They are said to have responded “Don’t tell us that you are from Galilee, too.” Keep in mind that for the elite and powerful, Galileans were only one step above the shepherds so this was meant to shut up Nicodemus.

But Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, would see that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb after He died on the Cross, even if it meant violating the very codes of cleanliness that so dominated his own life. In doing so, Nicodemus proclaimed that he believed in what Jesus was saying and doing and that there was a new order in his life.

It was that same new order that would allow Peter to proclaim that Jesus Christ was the cornerstone of the new faith and the new kingdom. It was this new order that allowed John to write to his followers and proclaim that our lives must be lead by love; that our lives must be identified by our actions and by the truth of the Gospel.

The order of life changed when Jesus came into this world. It seems to me that the church today must begin to think about what it has become and how it has forgotten what it once was. We have heard the words and we have seen the evidence. We can ignore what we have seen and heard and nothing will change. We can struggle to put what we have seen into place in the old order but we know that cannot work. Or we can open our hearts and our minds to the power of Christ to change the world, to bring a new order of things.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

This was my message for the 4th Sunday in Easter, 11 May 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18.  It was also Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day Proclamation – Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, disarm! The Sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.


The number of things that have a Methodist background has always amazed me. And today is no exception. For the fortunes of the Welch’s Grape Juice and Mother’s Day are both deeply rooted in Methodism. The founder of Welch’s was a devout Methodist who wanted to find a viable alternative to wine that could be used in communion and, Mother’s Day, as you read in the bulletin is a tradition that began many years ago in a Methodist Episcopal church in Grafton, West Virginia.

Observed on the second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day honors all mothers. It began in its present form with a special service in May 1907 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, organized the service to honor her mother, Anna Reese Jarvis, who had died on May 9, 1905, for her work during the Civil War organizing women, working for better sanitary conditions, and to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. (For those who may not remember their United States history, West Virginia seceded from Virginia in protest to Virginia’s secession from the Union. West Virginia became a state in 1863.). By 1908 Anna Jarvis was advocating that all mothers be honored on the second Sunday in May. In 1912 the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized the day and raised it to the national agenda. It has some parallels with the old English Mothering Sunday in mid-Lent, which focused on returning home and paying homage to one’s mother, and with Mother’s Day for Peace, introduced in 1872 by Julia Ward Howe in Boston as a day dedicated to peace (see the note at the beginning of the post).

The relationship between mothers and the cause for peace is by no means ironic or casual. We have to understand that war runs counter to the nature of life and, more times than we perhaps care to admit, it is up to the mothers to keep the family together. I do not mean to limit the role of the father in the family but, in times of war, fathers and sons are away fighting and it is to the mothers and wives that the bad news of death is given. I hope now, in this modern day, when daughters and wives go off to war, and fathers and husbands must grieve that people will work more strongly for peace. Unfortunately, what will happen is that instead of working for a more just and righteous world and giving all people equal opportunities in all venues of life, efforts will be made to return women to their “more traditional” roles.

Even today, there are countless examples of mothers striving to seek peace and justice in this world. It was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who brought down the Argentina government and an end to that government’s reign of terror in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. This group of mothers banded together to demand an accounting for the people, including their children, who were arrested and disappeared in that period of repression and cruelty.

The Nobel Prize committee thought so highly of the work of two mothers, Betty Williams and Mailread Corrigan as co-founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement, for their attempts to bring peace to Northern Ireland that they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, noted that many of her male colleagues who suffered a similar fate to hers (house arrest and imprisonment) for the roles in the democracy movement spoke of the great debt of gratitude they owed their womenfolk. She also noted that “Women in their role as mothers have traditionally assumed the responsibility of teaching children values that will guide them throughout their lives.” (Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech to the NGO Forum on Women in Beijing, China, on August 31, 1995)  We note in the history of Methodism the role that Susanna Wesley had in the upbringing of the Wesley family, most notably Charles and John. Now, no matter what the stories concerning the upbringing of the Wesley children, the influence of Susanna as a parent and her own religious background had much to say about what Charles and John came to believe.

I cannot put my mother in the same category as that of Susanna Wesley (that might be too low a level) but I can say that my knowledge of righteousness, fair play, loyalty, and understanding the role of the church in one’s life came from her. It was from her that I did learn what true and unconditional love is.

It may be a surprise to many people but neither of my parents, nor my siblings for that matter, share my political beliefs. In 1969, when I was perhaps more vocal, I came across an organization known as “Mothers against the Viet Nam War”. They were selling necklaces with the slogan “War is not healthy for children and other living things” engraved on it. I bought one for my mother, thinking it would be an appropriate gift for her and a statement of what I believe. (The recent events of this year have spawn a renewed interest in this organization and it now has its own web page,www.warisnothealthy.org.) But when she got it, she wrote me and told me that she wasn’t exactly thrilled by the stand I was taking. This was a comment I would hear a couple months later when my participation in a public protest became known outside the boundaries of Kirksville. But she would cherish the memento because I was her son and because she loved me.

Being a parent, whether it is as a father or a mother often requires a statement of unconditional love. We are reminded of the story of the prodigal son who demanded and was given more from his father that he was entitled too, who squandered away what was given to him, but was welcomed back to the household with open arms and a love that could not be measured. Our Gospel reading for today speaks of the love a shepherd has for his sheep.

The parable of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep points out the difference between someone who looks after the sheep and someone whom cares for the sheep. The person who cares for the sheep will go to great distances to find lost ones and bring them back. And as Jesus pointed out, He is the shepherd and we are the flock he is caring for. He is willing to lay down his life so that we may continue living.

John follows this up with his first letter pointing out that as Jesus laid down his own life for us, we should lay down our lives for others. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and see a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3: 17)  John reiterates the point that it is our love for others and nothing else that will make a difference in this world.

Peter’s challenge to those assembled in Jerusalem comes because they, the rulers, elders, and scribes could not see doing something because of a love for that person as a person. Any action taken must have some benefit for the doer and not just because it is the right thing to do.

The new reality of life is built on Jesus, the cornerstone, and that is foundation built with love for others. This is the message that is put forth in the Gospels time and time again. But it was a message not easily heard back then and it is certainly not a message easily heard today.

We see countless examples of the actions of some benefiting only themselves with little concerns for others. We see mothers and fathers whose actions seek the favor of their peers and their children, instead of instilling true love and loyalty in their children’s hearts. We see children whose actions belie what they say they stand for, perhaps as much as the actions of their parents belie any statement of value or belief in their own lives.

It is fortunate for us that we are celebrating Communion today, because it gives us a chance to remember that it was a table set with and by unconditional love. As we take the bread and drink the juice this morning we are reminded that Jesus died for our sins so that we might live again. We are reminded that Jesus was sent by the Holy Father as a sign of his love and concern for each and every one of us.

Tina Turner sang a song that had the line “What’s love got to do with it?” In that song, love was nothing but a secondhand emotion. But love has everything to do with what this day is about, the love of mothers for their children, the love of children for their mothers, and most importantly the love of a Father for his children.

Who You Gonna Call?

This was my message for the 4th Sunday in Easter, 14 May 2000, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18.  It was also Mother’s Day.


Today is Mother’s Day. As noted in the bulletin, today is an outgrowth of efforts by a Methodist woman some 90 years ago to honor her mother.

One should not think of the Methodist Church as solely the work of John Wesley or the combined efforts of John and his brother Charles. As with all efforts, there are always many factors that should be considered. The work of their mother, Susanna Wesley, in raising them had as much to do with the birth of Methodism as any other single factor.

Susanna nurtured their minds and spirits, tamed their wills without crushing their spirits. Patiently, she helped her children to learn at a pace best suited to their own ability. For their benefit, she wrote little books of instruction on religious themes. Later, after the children were grown, she was always there to offer counsel and guidance.

So, on this day when we honor our mothers, I hope that you will allow me the opportunity to speak about the two mothers most important to me — my own mother and my paternal grandmother.

Both my grandmother and my mother were officer’s wives, committed a life of following their husbands from one post or air base to another. As the burden of raising my father and uncle fell upon my grandmother’s shoulders, so also did the burden of raising my brothers, sister, and I fall to my mother.

My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It comes as a surprise to many people when they find out that not only is my mother a grandmother but that she is a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she neither looks her age nor allows her age to dictate what she is going to do (though the artificial knee she has seems to think otherwise). That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my paternal grandmother as well.

For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. Whenever my father was transferred to a new base, she sought out the closest church so that we could go to Sunday School and church every week. When I was in college and began to enjoy the freedom of getting to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I found something missing if I didn’t get up and get on over to church. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning, a legacy that comes from my mother caring about my upbringing when I was young.

My grandmother, Elsa Schüessler Mitchell, was just as interesting a person. While going to school in Kirksville, MO, the northeastern part of the state, it was easier for me to visit her in St. Louis than to go home to Memphis. And when I would visit her, my parents would always tell me to help my grandmother with the housework and the yard work, especially during those hot, humid Missouri summers. Yet, try as I might, I never could. For my grandmother would get up early in the day and spend an hour or so working on the yard, tending her garden and flowers before the day got too hot or humid.

And though my grandmother died in 1985, her memory lives on. The flowers and shrubs that she so tenderly cared for were transplanted to my mother’s yard in Memphis and continue to grow to this day.

And in all the memories I have of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, the core membership of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settled St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life, providing her comfort and companionship in the years after my grandfather had died and her sons and grandchildren had moved far from St. Louis.

And when my father died in 1993, I learned something about my grandmother that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life. We asked a particular pastor who knew my father through the Boy Scouts to officiate at the funeral. As he talked about my father and scouting in general, he recalled one night shortly before my father died. That night he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. Now, the way the pastor said it, you could tell that he did not understand my father’s actions. But my brothers, sister and I knew that my father had been raised a Lutheran and we knew how proud his mother, my grandmother, was to know that my father was coming home.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I know that my grandmother loved me and that my mother still loves me. And perhaps it was that same sort of love that a mother or a parent has for a child that allowed Anna Jarvis to find a way to honor her own mother in 1907 so that we celebrate Mother’s Day this day. In so doing, we celebrate the presence of the family, both our immediate one and the greater one of the church to which we belong.

The central theme in the Scriptures today is about the love that we have for each other as members of one family. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its very end, the focus was always on the family. From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, his family was a part of the story.

Jesus was born at a family reunion.

In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kin; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. (Luke 2: 1 – 7)

When Jesus was twelve and the family was returning from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph did not worry about their son not being with them because they thought that he was with other members of the family.

When the festive season was over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know of this; but supposing that he was with the party they traveled for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their friends and relations. (Luke 2: 43 – 44)

And when Jesus began his ministry and performed his first miracle, as we heard from Bob Pinto two weeks ago, it was at the wedding of a family friend.

Yes, there were times when it seemed that Jesus ignored his own brothers and sisters but Jesus knew that His family, with God as the Father, were all those who believed in Him and followed Him.

“His mother and his brothers arrived but could not get to him for the crowd. He was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, and want to see you.’

He replied, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it.” (Luke 8: 18 – 21)

Some might say that Jesus was cruel to ignore His family in such a way, but Jesus saw that the every one was a potential member of His family, not just those with whom he grew up.

And though Jesus might have had difficulty with his own family because they didn’t always understand his ministry, He never forgot His own family. Even on the cross, at the point of near death, His own thoughts turned to His mother.

Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)

John, in the second reading for today, speaks of the love that God, our Father, has for each of us, his children. And how that love should be given to others as a sign of the love that God has for us. It is that same love that mothers have for their children. It is the same love that would have a daughter seek to honor her mother and all mothers.

It is a very difficult task in this day and age to take care of one’s own family, let alone the whole word. What parent today would calmly go about their business if they did not know where their twelve-year-old was, as Mary and Joseph did?

The challenge before us this day, on this day when we celebrate what our mothers mean to each of us, is to show the world that we are all part of God’s family. The work of the church in the community today is a family business.

When the church becomes a part of the community, its impact goes beyond measure. Some years ago I met the Reverend Rose Sims at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. As we talked, we found that we shared a number of things in common. It turned out that she got her doctorate from the University of Missouri at the same time that I received my Master’s degree. And not only that, her primary advisor served on my graduate committee. And her path to the ministry began with small churches in rural Missouri and lay speaking.

When she came to Minnesota to speak and evangelize that summer, she was coming from a small church in Florida that many had given up for dead. She had been asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community. In his first letter, John wrote of turning that we have, the love that God has for us into more that just words or speech but into truth and action, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3: 18)

When we were young and we needed help, we called our mothers. Maybe it was something simple like fixed a cut on our knee, or as we got older to fix a button on a shirt. Later, after we left home, we might call back to get a recipe for something to eat. We know that we can always call on our mothers.

Now we are older and perhaps we are the ones who take care of our mothers. And this we do, not because we have to do it, but because of the love that we have for our mothers.

Using the analogy of the shepherd and the flock was deliberate on Jesus’ part. Since the people who heard the story knew shepherds and the devotion they had for their flocks, they could understand what Jesus was saying. They understood that the sheep in a flock understand the shepherd’s voice and would respond to that voice.

On this day when we celebrate our mothers and what they mean to us, when we celebrate what the family means to us, we know that we are a part of a much larger family, the family with God as our Father.

When we needed to, we could call on our mother and she would be there. Now, when we need to, we know that God will always be there, like the shepherd tending his flock. And for others who are lost and seek guidance, we, as the church and members of God’s family, will be there to help them.

To Search for Excellence

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter.

Back in 1994 I took a seminar entitled “Quest for Quality”.When the seminar began, I thought that I would gain an understanding of the “TQM” process and its application to church management.

It was a time when the “search for excellence” was being applied to every process one could imagine, from standard business processes to educational processes.

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Iowa, I was aware of the national study that produced indicators of excellence in science education. (Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

So I saw this seminar as a chance to improve my own skills and become more knowledgeable about the quality process.

But by the middle of the second day of this three-day seminar, I was convinced that something was not quite what it seemed.

And as we were wrapping up the seminar that third day, it occurred to me that I had learned nothing new.

In a flash of insight, much like the noted Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra once noted, it was “déjà vu all over again”.

What I thought was to be a new an exciting venture was nothing more than a rephrasing of the statistical quality control methods that my father had used throughout his career in the Air Force and work in the private sector at McDonnell Aircraft and RCA.

I spent three days relearning what I already knew and what had essentially “paid” for my undergraduate college education.

I also never did get an appreciation for why or how this approach, which focuses on the “bottom line” of manufacturing processes, could be applied to church management.

And today, some twelve years after this seminar, I am not sure that businesses or individuals understand what quality or excellence mean.

Even the term “TQM” has been replaced by the terms “Six Sigma” or “ISO 9001”.

But though the names change, the processes remain the same.

But “reinventing” statistical quality control does not mean that a business or organization understands the basic premise of the process; that for the method to be successful, everyone, from the top management positions to the last person on the assembly line, must be involved.

Management cannot simply state that the company is going to invest in quality processes or be an excellence-oriented company; they must demonstrate the application of the process in what they do as well.

It is probably a big leap to say so but the differential between executive pay and employee pay, which has been increasing over the past few years, should be an indication that upper level management practices a “do what I say, not what I do” type of management.

Such a management process can never result in excellence or quality for it shows that management does not care for the worker.

Now, I am not saying that an approach seeking excellence or quality control is not appropriate for church operations and/or management.

What does the Gospel reading for today (John 10: 11 – 18) say?

Does not Jesus indicate that He is the Shepherd and that He is willing to look for the single lost sheep?

In how many of the parables that we learned as children do we not see God as the “manager or CEO” who has an interest in what is happening in vineyard or plant?

It is clear that with Jesus, God decided to change the way in which He managed his enterprises.

Within the framework of the Old Testament, God had used the prophets to communicate and he had used the religious hierarchy to maintain society.

But the people did not listen to the prophets and the hierarchy seemed only interested in maintaining their positions of power and privilege.

It was clearly a time for change in management style.

To me, the Gospel reading for today indicates that God was not happy with those who had been appointed with looking out for the flock.

Does not Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading that those who were supposed to look after the flock left at the first sign of trouble, abandoning the flock to the dangers of the world?

How are we to understand this paragraph except in terms of a religious establishment that failed the people they were supposed to lead and protect?

The other management principle that I learned from quality control was that everyone was to be involved.

It is clear from the reading of John’s letter to the people (1 John 3: 16 – 24) that we, the people of the church, are also responsible for the work of the church, “Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action” wrote John; later, he wrote “we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us.” Peter, when asked by what authority he was able to do his ministry, replied that it was through Christ.

Again, what we have is the essence of quality and excellence passing from the top of the management all the way to the lowest member of the church.

Churches should be looking more at what they can do in their neighborhoods and communities, not trying to see if they can be the biggest group in their neighborhood or community.

Instead of looking at the statistical norm in a group, churches need to focus on those on the outer edges of the group.

These are the ones that Jesus referred to as the lost sheep, the ones the shepherd went out to find.

There is a need for specialization within any organization; we would not expect the regular parishioners of any church to be experts in theology, nor would we want the pastor to be the “on-call expert” in case the air conditioning system breaks down.

But what we do want is everyone to realize what the mission of the church and how each member of the church can meet the mission of the church.

Today, we know, as Peter told the crowds, the cornerstone of our faith is Jesus. In this day and age where we hear a cry for quality in our lives, where we seek excellence at all levels, perhaps we should look to how Jesus conducted his ministry and how it represented what true excellence in an organization was achieved.

We are asked to carry the quality of the mission through what we do, what we say, and how we act.

In doing so, we will strive and achieve excellence.